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Diversity in the OT (sic!)

October 6, 2008

Both Philip Sumpter and Chris Tilling are batting around the issue of handling diverse way God is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible.

Chris asks whether Brueggemann, Goldingay or a christologically driven Tomlin provide the best way of the interpreting the diversity. None are my favourites, but I’d have to take Bruggemann over the other two (and that with having studied with Goldingay!). We need to let the diversity be.

Philip’s post is a bit more confusing to me. He critiques the choices posed by Chris and states the following:

The fact that Dogmatic theologians such as Barth, Diem, or Webber have been left out baffles me somewhat and seriously compromises the selection from the outset. Why should we assume that Old Testament theologians are the ones best equipped for handling diversity in the OT?

Generally, I’d say the reason why you’d assume a scholar of the Hebrew Bible would handle the diversity better is that often times they’re the only ones actually taking the text seriously. The only ones reading the text to hear what it is saying in and of itself.

I get suspicious of most New Testament scholars and all theologians who interpret the Hebrew Bible. Too often, they’re using the text as a tool rather than letting it speak for itself.

  1. October 6, 2008 3:37 pm

    Perhaps you mean “they’re” instead of “their” ?? But, I agree with you.


  2. October 6, 2008 3:53 pm

    Bah! That’s what I get for blogging with a head cold….

  3. October 6, 2008 4:11 pm

    Jim, I tend to agree that New Testament theologians and systematic theologians interpreting the Hebrew Bible makes me nervous. It seems rather obvious to me that OT theologians are the best equipped to handle the subject matter–but perhaps I’m missing something?

  4. October 6, 2008 4:25 pm

    Even in the hands (and sometimes especially in the hands) of an OT scholar, texts never speak for themselves, they’re always interpreted. Surely?

  5. October 7, 2008 4:54 am

    First of all, I misspelt the name “Webber,” I meant “Webster.”

    I can understand why bringing dogmatics into this can be confusing. For most OT scholars, dogmaticians are perceived as intruders whose broader construals of theological reality compromise the objectivity of their analysis of the parts. And in one sense this is true. I wasn’t suggesting that we only have dogamaticians in the list, only that in answer to the question of how to handle the diversity requires interaction with their craft. OT scholars help sketch out the diversity and explain it. But the issue is how the relate the parts. Can an OT scholar, working in a secular paradigm, really explain to me the relation between Wisdom literature, prophecy and law, other than in purely chronological terms? He can talk of cultural influences, relate the parts diachronically etc., but when it comes to wrestling with the theological substance of the message, I think we run into difficulties. The Christian claim is that the OT is a direct witness to Christ, not historical background information for the NT or a primitive stage in an unfolding spiritual evolution. This means that for the Christian questions of the nature of referentiality and the nature of the “substance” of the text cannot be ignored. We’re caught in a dialectial tension between the dogmatic claims of the NT and tradition concerning Christ and the fact that these claims are made in terms of an OT witness that has remained untouched by the church. It has been accepted in all its Jewishness, without being redacted or changed to fit a more Christological agenda (by redactionally inserting “Jesus” into Isaiah 53, for example). Reading the letter only and not getting to the spirit is not an option for Christian exegesis, and arguably not an option for any interpretation of a text. Dilthey argued long ago, and I think it still stands in one form or another, that erklären (explanation) only deals with the surface of a text, whereas verstehen digs deeper. I think the relation between the two is dialectical.

    I’ve already moved out of the bounds of the OT in order to try and explain the nature of the issue. Childs’ approach, as opposed to Sanders or Brueggemann, is that the Christian confession of the OT witness to Christ is not only true, it cannot be for ever bracketed out for the sake of an illusiory objectivity. At best only temporarily, and then only as part of a dialectic, the goal of which is not to point at various parts, but to wrestle with the true substance of the parts.

    Another dimension of this complex issue is “the economy of God.” What is the true context of Scripture? What are the hermeneutical implications? If a later tradent reconfigures an earlier layer according to a “different” referent (a more profound understanding of its substance) than is it right to follow Brueggemann et al and just leave the “contradition” standing, or do we following the kerygmatic intentionality of the editor and see how his work functions as a guide to the texts’ substance (á la Childs, Seitz, Sheppard, Karl Barth, etc.)? Surely a concept of “progressive revelation” helps here.

    Dogmatics is the construal of the whole, and so it is necessary for fitting the parts together. When Brueggemann says “[T]he biblical material itself … refuses to be reduced or domesticated into a settled coherence. This refusal may not be simply a literary one but a theological one, pertaining to its central Subject.” (quoted here), he’s making a dogmatic statement and not just a historical, literary, analytical one. But if he had a different dogmatic presupposition, perhaps he would handle the differences differently (see the debate between him and Childs in SJT, which I commented on in the first three posts here).

    Finally, to return to the three options Chris gives us: the first fails because it go against the kerygmatic thrust of the text by focussing, not on that which the text is talking about, but on the epistemological conditions of the receiving community. It’s like reading a news report, not so that you can find out what happened (i.e. the purpose of the thing) but so that you can understand the rhetorical strategy of the news reader and the ways that message is refracted through cultural context of those watching the show. Of course these things are important to understand, but an exclusive focus on this means that God– the subject of the “news report”–gets lost in the background. Brueggemann reads a theocentric text anthropocentrically.

    Second, Goldingay is facing in the right direction. He just needs a bit more theoretical ballast to explain why this is the direction to be going in. This quote taken on its own makes the whole project look rather lame, like someone embarrassedly piecing together bits of someone else’s broken pottery and trying to make the best of it.

    Third, Tomlin is doing I what suggested above: reading the parts in light of the whole. As long as by “Jesus Christ” he doesn’t mean the New Testament construal over against the Old, but rather both equally and dialectically in relation to the one Christ who transcends them both. A trinitarian hermeneutic may be more appropriate here (see J. Barr’s comments).

    I’ve argued for this recently in my post on the need for ontological categories in biblical exegesis.

  6. October 7, 2008 5:51 am

    I also think my post on the theological crisis of biblical criticism is relevant here. Sorry to overwhelm you with text!

  7. October 13, 2008 12:17 am

    The Old Testament? People read that? The OT God is merely the Demiurge, that inferior creator God . . . of course that God is inconsistent 😉

  8. Erik permalink
    October 20, 2008 7:44 pm

    Perhaps a diversity of divine portrayal in OT/HB is best represented by a diversity of Scholarship. All are bringing their own bents and biases just as the separate authors and redactors surely brought theirs (not to mention that the study of scripture, even (gasp) excluding the theological, isn’t just about authorial intent or historical freezeframes but it is the studay of the reception and interpretation of the text through time as well. Post-Exillic jews clearly had different ideas than pre-exillic about the corpus (or what they had of it) and certainly all of your various sects and branches have their own developments as well as their own insights, new or preserved.)

    It’s not like we’re looking for the absolute academic answer, is it?

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