Saturday, October 11, 2008

More Insight on Christological Interpretation

Phil at Narrative and Ontology has added two more posts about the issue of Christological interpretation of the OT. One is directly responding to the question that Josh raised at A New Testament Student which I gave my thoughts on already.

I've found all of Phil's posts on this issue to be interesting and insightful:

1. Why Exegesis Needs Dogmatics
2. Can a Christian Respect the Old Testament?
3. Is Christological Interpretation OK?
4. Jesus in the Old Testament?

He's shown me new ways of thinking theologically about the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He mentions the dialectical relationship of Old and New Testaments in posts 2 and 3, and while he never links to my post on the issue, he seems to be responding to my general approach when he says:
I think a lot of people struggle with the concept of Christological interpretation because they think it means reading the OT through the lens of the NT, subordinating it to the NT's own agenda. But that simply assumes that the NT on its own has somehow grasped the full reality of who Christ is. OT scholars such as Childs and Seitz, however, argue that both OT and NT are equal witnesses to the one Christ who transcends both testaments. This was the assumption of the NT writers, who read the Jewish Scriptures in order to understand Christ (see my thread on this), not in order to speciously back up their claims. The early church, too, read the OT to understand Jesus, and not just to apologetically back up the NT's own particular construal (though that did happen too).
I use that image - reading the OT through the lens of the NT - when I discuss how some interpreters are unable to separate the OT text from its NT fulfillment. They can't understand why everyone doesn't just realize that this or that passage is about Jesus. I expressed similar sentiments in my post about Christological interpretation.

If I'm understanding Phil correctly, he's saying that OT and NT are both separate theological witnesses to Christ. Therefore, one shouldn't be privileged as the lens through which the other is read. I suppose that is fine if one is doing biblical theology - searching for an overarching theme or unified witness through both testaments.

But, theology isn't what I do. Canonical exegesis imposes unity on the text and searches for a theological point. It's not critical biblical scholarship because it requires the presupposition that Old and New Testaments are equally divine revelation and the words themselves point to some coherent higher reality. This is subordinating both texts to a theological agenda. Now if one is approaching the text from a Christian theological perspective, then there's nothing really wrong with that. A theological reading and a coherent unified interpretation taking into account the full witness of Scripture is necessary for the Church. As Brevard Childs said, "much of the confusion in the history of Old Testament theology derives from the reluctance to recognize that it is a Christian enterprise" (Old Testament Theology, 8) [quoted by Phil here].

However, if we're looking at the history of interpretation, it's obvious that the NT came later and built on the traditions of the OT. While I would never call the NT writers' use of Scripture "specious," I think there is a sense where they are trying to "back up their claims." Jesus gave them a new way of understanding their Scripture, and the NT is primarily a witness to their transformed way of understanding the revelation of the OT. Continuity and change - the catchwords of the rise of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.

So I've learned a lot from reading Phil's posts about OT theology. I don't claim to be a theologian and don't aspire to be one. For me there's a big difference between being an OT theologian and being an OT scholar.


  1. Hi Doug,

    I agree, being an OT scholar is different from being an OT or "Biblical" theologian. And I know that at Wisconsin-Madison you are being trained to be the former, under Fox, right?

    I went to school, in under-grad with Tim Mackie, if you know him, tell him I said hi . . . I'm assuming you guys are both doing the same PhD program.

    Nice blog, I'll have to keep track with it.

  2. Thanks for the coverage, Doug! I've been meaning to get back to you but am struggling to find the time. I'm glad you can see where I'm coming from on "discrete witness" and "dialectic." I would however, take issue with your third from last paragraph on what canonical interpretation actually is. May I be presumptious and assume that you have only read about canonical exegesis, but not the exegesis itself ... ? I ask because what you have written is almost the standard refrain in the secondary literature so that I'm constantly hearing it on my blog. The problem is, I think you'd be hard pressed to find in Childs' work (and I mean Childs, not other versions of a canonical approach) any evidence of this flattening. I hope to respond to the quote in detail on my blog as I think this is a misperception that needs to be dealt with. In the meantime, two quotes that I think are relevant:

    "any suggestion to the effect that a 'canonical' approach is harmonizing or ahistorical rests upon a mistaken mythology generated by critics who have never properly engaged with it”

    - Anthony Thiselton

    “I shall argue that both a diachronic and a synchronic dimension are necessary for biblical exegesis. In word, I deem inadequate the usual diachronic approach of traditional historical criticism that offers a literary and historical reconstruction of the text's allegedly original background as the necessary context for critical interpretation. Likewise, I reject a synchronic or structuralist rendering—a position increasingly defended both in liberal and conservative circles—which focuses solely on the text as a self-sufficient literary entity apart from any consideration of the reality behind its written form. Rather, the crucial issue remains in determining how the diachronic and synchronic relate.”

    - B.S. Childs, Isaiah commentary.

    Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong!

  3. Having re-read my comment I feel presumptious in my statements about having read Childs' exegesis. It's just that,when people critique Childs' approach they do it on the basis of his theory, but not on the basis of his actual exegesis. If you can show me where his exegesis flattens the text then I'll hold my peace :)

  4. Phil,

    You've got me on that one. It's true that most of my experience with canonical criticism has come from secondary literature, especially the standard texts on critical method in biblical studies like Barton's Reading the OT and McKenzie & Haynes, To Each Its Own Meaning. I have used Seitz's Isaiah commentary, but we don't give much attention to Childs directly.

    From the quote you've offered from his Isaiah commentary, he appears to sound more nuanced in his approach than I'd given him credit for. I appreciate that you've made me aware of it. There's nothing I hate more than scholarly arguments based on caricatures, so I'm glad to be reminded that one must always go to the source instead of accepting that other critics are being fair and balanced.

    However, I think my basic point is that critical biblical scholarship and theological biblical scholarship are often talking past and around each other precisely because of their distinctly different perspectives on the text.

    Also, I think any methodology that presupposes unity and coherence for the text must impose that unity. I'm thinking of the different attempts to show Isaiah is a unified composition. Again my knowledge of the debate is secondary (David Carr, "Reaching for Unity in Isaiah." JSOT 57, 1993, 61-80), but I've read all of Isaiah (in Hebrew)and found that I agreed with Carr's assessment of the book's structure, though I hadn't read the works he cited from Seitz and Childs.

    I'm open to correction on this issue (as always). I'll admit when I've been mistaken, and it seems Childs offered a more rounded explanation than I've heard for canonical criticism. However, I think the assumption of unity is still a problem for that method.

    Thanks for the comment, Phil. I'll look around your blog to see if you've already done this, but any articles/chapters that you'd recommend that give the essence of Childs or Seitz so that I can understand them on their own terms?

  5. Phil,

    Sorry your second comment was awaiting moderation while I replied to the first.

    Are you saying that Childs's theory allows the criticism of flattening but that he didn't actually put it into practice that way?

    For the record, "flattening the text" is your term in this discussion. I'm struggling with it because it has a more derogatory feel to it than what I was thinking about the canonical approach. I'll admit "leveling" or "harmonizing" mean something similar but sound nicer.

    Flattening might be difficult to detect in exegesis. Since it's a global presupposition to assume unity and read the parts in light of that overarching message, it might be difficult to pick out of individual passages of exegesis. I think of it as a presupposition that's gone in effect before the exegesis has been done. It also wouldn't always need to be done. What does Childs do with the composition of Isaiah, for example? (I'm asking because I don't remember at the moment.) Does he engage the evidence for layered composition or lay it aside to read the text as a whole? I'm interested more now in his Isaiah commentary than I was before, so this is good.

  6. I'm afraid I'm really pushed for time at the mo, but seeing as I'm writing on this a quick quote. I'll respond in more detail as soon as poss, as these conversations are valuable.

    Barton in 1984 completely missed the point. It really is way off. The unity of the text Childs resides not in the text but in its referent. The diversity has to do with its situatedness, the unity has to do with its ultimate source: God. Barton seems to have picked up on this later on:

    “When Childs talks of the ‘final form’ of the text he does not mean the text as a unified aesthetic object, but (Barth-like) as the communication of the word of God… The question is not: what does the final form mean as a literary unity?, but: what word of God is communicated through this passage?” In Barton, “Canonical Approaches Ancient and Modern,” in Biblical Canons (Ed. J-M Auwers & H. J. De Jonge; Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2003), 199–209; here, 201; cited in Driver, “Brevard Childs,” 98.

  7. Thanks, Phil. I look forward to your more detailed response.

    Just a quick clarification, I was referring to the 2nd edition of Barton's book, 1996. Of course, in that edition he says he had been criticized for being too easy on Childs in the first edition.

    I'll try to find that chapter you've quoted from, too. I'm interested in the broader phenomenon of canonicity and canonization also.

  8. Hi Douglas, I appreciate your thoughts here and your sensitive treatment of the subject. This gives me the opportunity to think through the issue myself. I hope you don't mind if briefly go through your comments point by point.

    Canonical exegesis imposes unity on the text and searches for a theological point.

    I'm not sure how the second part of the statement is related to the first. Is the imposition of unity a result of the theological interest of the interpreter? If so, how? Although it can certainly happen that the Bible gets reduced to a single scheme, this is a danger we all face, whether theological or not. We all have a broader theory of reality within which we try and comprehend the text. I don't see how a non-theological approach would be more accurate. Especially given that the texts themselves are intrinsically theological. They claim to be inspired by God, a response to God, to witness to God. I'm not sure how factoring him out of the equation guarantees objectivity in a way in which confessing him doesn't.

    Canonical exegesis imposes unity

    Canonical exegesis in the sense in which Childs understands it claims that the unity of the text lies in its theological referent. That means that there can be diversity, but that it is at some point resolved at a “higher level” outside of the text. The diversity is a result of the kerygmatic nature of the text, i.e. its genre is human proclamation of the divine, with all the historical and cultural particularity that that entails. It doesn't follow that their common subject matter, the God of Israel, also consists in conflicting identities. Admittedly this is a theological assertion, but the question of whether the theological (and not literary) unity claimed for the Bible is an imposition or not should be adjudicated on the basis of concrete proposals, and not used to reject the approach per se. To honest, I'm not sure how a confessing Christian or Jew could read the Bible with any other assumption.

    Added to this is an important element of the redactional history of the Bible: it consists in a Sachkritik (critique according to content). According to Childs, ancient traditions were critically judged according to a standard of truth which the editors claimed represented the true theological content of those traditions. Isaiah's oracles concerning Assyria, for example, were sifted and ordered and collected with other oracles concerning Babylon according to a theological account of time. The two empires became types of one reality: sinful human hubris. Here, then, you have both particularity and unity. Again, in the inner-canonical reception history of the Exodus traditions, only certain elements were highlighted. The vicious domination of the Egyptians is not thematized, but the graciousness of God is. Here, too, we have a diversity of possibilities being brought under the aegis of a single theological trajectory.

    ... searches for a theological point

    Given that the Bible is theological, I'm not sure why this is a criticism. Is one doing the book of Kings more justice by looking for archaeological evidence or by assessing its description of God?

    It's not critical biblical scholarship because it requires the presupposition that Old and New Testaments are equally divine revelation and the words themselves point to some coherent higher reality.

    I'm afraid I don't get this. Does that mean that to be a critical scholar one must be either an atheist or a non-Jew/Christian? How can a Christian be asked to stop believing that the Bible witnesses to God it order to be more critical? Isn't that to reify methodological atheism? Some of the greatest OT scholars believed that “ Old and New Testaments are equally divine revelation and the words themselves point to some coherent higher reality”: von Rad, Noth, Eichrodt, Zimmerli, W.H.Schmidt, Wolff, Childs, Seitz, Kaufmann, etc. Are they not critical?

    This is subordinating both texts to a theological agenda.

    Again, one cannot simply assume that the texts do not point to a single divine reality, as if this is self-evident. The idea is relatively new, a result of recent secularist developments in the late 20th century. The names given above would reject this from the outset, and they are some of the fathers of Old Testament criticism.

    Now if one is approaching the text from a Christian theological perspective, then there's nothing really wrong with that.

    If everything you've said up to this point is true, then to continue asserting it in the name of “Christian theology” would make the enterprise a sham. Theology based on an imposed, external, theological agenda is not true theology. It is fideism and not worthy of belief and obedience.

    Jesus gave them a new way of understanding their Scripture, and the NT is primarily a witness to their transformed way of understanding the revelation of the OT.

    I'm in full agreement here. And so is Childs. It's part of his argument for a dialectical reading of the two testaments, rather than subordinating the Old Testament to its reception in the New. That is a fundamental presupposition of the canonical approach. It takes the two-testamental nature of Scripture seriously. The New is simply juxtaposed with the Old, so that means we too must look at both in their own integrity rather than subordinate one to the other (as I wrote here).

    For examples of canonical exegesis, go here.

    I hope I'm not misrepresenting you here ... Feel free to bite back!

  9. Phil,

    Thanks for your thoughtful engagement with my post. Such a detailed comment deserves a much more detailed reply than I have time to offer at the moment.

    In short, I'll clarify that I was speaking of imposing literary unity. I think this is what is being done automatically with canonical criticism. I might be wrong but it seems to be like saying "I don't care about the redactional layers-just let me read the text as a whole to see what message emerges." Aside from the theological claim of divine revelation, why should we expect a text that was edited over time to have a unified message?

    I'm not atheist or agnostic, but I think biblical criticism (in the secular sense) and theological exegesis represent different levels of engagement with the text. In a confessional setting, I read the text in a different way (with a different set of assumptions/conceptions about the reality behind the text) than in a secular academic setting.

    I think the main point where we may differ is whether it's legitimate to stop at those different levels when engaging the text or whether the only "right" way to read is a way that reaches for the philosophical/theological reality behind the text.

    I have to leave it at that for now. As I think over your comments more, I may respond in a further post on the subject. Thanks for your thoughts.

  10. Thanks for your response. I look forward to your further thoughts. As to the bit about redaction criticism, there are some who say that Childs' approach is nothing but redaction criticism, so I'm surprised that you think - or you have heard - that he ignores it. There are plenty of approaches, however, that call themselves "canonical" yet in the end are a form of literary reading which manage to constantly find unity wherever they look. That's not the type I'm referring to. Perhaps I should qualify it by calling it "the Childsian canonical approach," but then that just sounds dumb!

  11. I just realized that my post on juxtaposition was wrong. It's here.

    I think my most relevant post could be on source criticism and the final form.

    OK, I won't bother you with anymore links!

  12. Phil, I was speaking more broadly of canonical criticism, not specifically Childs, when I mentioned redaction. Again, I'm going off Barton's claim that canonical criticism was very close to literary new criticism or structural criticism. When I have time (hopefully soon), I'll look at the links you've offered.