Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture

Jon Levenson: Historical Criticism as a Tyrant, Parasite or Tradition

Here are few exerpts from Jon Levenson’s book The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies.  By the way: this book is a must read for anyone trying to read the Bible as Scripture:

“Even the most antireligious among biblical scholars must face this paradoxical reality: the vitality of their rather untraditional discipline has historically depended upon the vitality of traditional religious communities, Jewish and Christian.”  [110]

“The belief that the meaning of religious phenomena is available only to the outside observer is a secular analogue to religious revelation.  If so, then a system of thought like historicism, which “exempts itself from its own verdict”, is a secular equivalent to fundamentalism.  For though it subjects all else to critique, it asserts axiomatically its own inviolability to critique.”  [117]

“Historical criticism will not only have to surrender the positivistic notion of critical autonomy and recognize itself as a tradition.  It will also have to recognize that it corresponds to a community of interpretation.  It is a very special kind, however, one dependent upon other communities of interpretation for the very object of its inquiry and, historically if not necessarily, for its motivation as well.  Historical critics thus constitute a secondary community; they engage in second-order reflection upon the primary language of the religious communities they study.”  [123]

Jon Levenson on Historical Criticism

Posted in Historical Criticsm, Jon Levenson, PhD Research by Bacho on October 5, 2010

JON D. LEVENSON is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies in the Divinity School and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University.  Here is an excerpt from his presidential address at the 1992 convention of the New England region of the Society of Biblical Literature published in First Things 30 [1993]:

“The secularity of historical criticism represents not the suppression of commitment, but its relocation. Scholars with religious motivations are thus not out of order in challenging their secular colleagues to make public their own motivations in pursuing biblical studies and to explain how the method fulfills that motivation. In an era of multiculturalism and budgetary constraint, this inevitably entails explaining how the relocation of commitment from a traditional religious sphere can maintain a place of relative privilege for the study of the Bible. Should the answer substitute a cultural for a religious motivation and center on the importance of the Bible in Western civilization, then, in the current climate, a defense of the importance of the West, at least for American students, is imperative. This is, of course, ironic in light of the tendency of historical criticism to think of itself as transcending particularism and debunking claims of privilege. It is doubly ironic because historical critics have usually neglected the modes of biblical interpretation that preceded them, labeling them “precritical” and thus irrelevant to their own task.

Any secular defense of the study of the Bible will also need to account for the canon chosen. Will there be an “Old Testament” or a Tanakh? If the former, then why, if Christological claims are not credited? And if the latter, then why again, if Judaism is also disallowed? Should the response be the classic historicist point that the books should be examined within the limits of their dates of composition, one is compelled again to point out that when they were written, they were not yet biblical and that most do not presuppose a book-religion at all. In short, biblical studies inevitably (indeed by definition) involves the affirmation of certain religious judgments-if not for the present, then at least as a legacy of the past with continuing normative effects. Secularity is no guarantee of religious neutrality.

Historical criticism has long posed a major challenge to people with biblical commitments, and for good reason. What I hope to have shown is that the reverse is also the case: the Bible poses a major challenge to people with historical-critical commitments.”

A Question Waiting to be Answered

Posted in Hermeneutics, Historical Criticsm, OT Theology by Bacho on September 29, 2010

Iain Provan raised an interesting question in his paper presented at the “Bible and Theology” conference at King’s College London in April 1995:

“The discipline of OT theology…clearly has (or at least should have) a future in the Church. Does it have a future in the Academy? There are really two questions disguised here, of course. Can the discipline be academically justified, and will such justification make any difference? That it can be justified I have no doubt. Persuading others of its street-credibility may be another matter, in a context where the rationalist-materialist-reductionist paradigm of education still holds so much sway and still seems to many self-evidently to define the territory within which proper academic discourse may occur. Yet in some ways it is much easier to argue now for a legitimate place within the Academy for the kind of discipline I have been describing than it was even ten years ago.”  [Published as an article in Scottish Journal of Theology under the title CANONS TO THE LEFT OF HIM: BREVARD CHILDS, HIS CRITICS, AND THE FUTURE OF OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY]

Well, fifteen years have passed.  What kind of an answer can we give?  Do we face a changed landscape today?  Has the disciple of OT theology found its permanent place in the Academy?

Elisha vs. Elijah: Brevard Childs’ strong words about Karl Barth

Posted in Brevard Childs, Historical Criticsm, Humor, Karl Barth by Bacho on August 27, 2010

I was getting an impression that Brevard Childs was to Karl Barth what Elisha was to Elijah.  Then I came upon Childs’ little book Myth and Reality in the Old Testament:

“Barth avoids the dangers of a dualistic concept of history [Geschichte and Historie] by remaining strictly within the Biblical categories. Although he attempts to do justice theologically to history, in practice his history also tends to lose its earth-bound qualities. Barth certainly acknowledges historical criticism, but its findings are consigned merely to formal matters without adding any tangible content to his history. One can seriously question whether Barth has solved the problem of history or merely avoided it.”  [101]

“No bacon and cheese Rösti for you, Brevard,” says Frau Barth.

J.I. Packer, Karl Barth and the Scriptures

Posted in Hermeneutics, Historical Criticsm, Reading the Bible as Scripture by Bacho on August 24, 2010

Here is an interesting excerpt from an evangelical icon J.I. Packer on Historical-Critical approach to the Bible taken from his book Fundamentalism and the Word of God.  While he would strongly reject any association, Packer sounds suspiciously like Karl Barth:

“A century of criticism has certainly thrown some light on the human side of the Bible—its style, language, composition, history and culture; but whether it has brought the Church a better understanding of its divine message than Evangelicals of two, three and four hundred years ago possessed is more than doubtful. It is not at all clear that we today comprehend the plan of salvation, the doctrines of sin, election, atonement, justification, new birth and sanctification, the life of faith, the duties of churchmanship and the meaning of Church history, more clearly than did the Reformers, or the Puritans, or the leaders of the eighteenth-century revival. When it is claimed that modern criticism has greatly advanced our understanding of the Bible, the reply must be that it depends upon what is meant by the Bible; criticism has thrown much light on the human features of Scripture, but it has not greatly furthered our knowledge of the Word of God. Indeed, it seems truer to say that its effect to date has been rather to foster ignorance of the Word of God; for by concentrating on the human side of Scripture it has blurred the Church’s awareness of the divine character of scriptural teaching, and by questioning biblical statements in the name of scholarship it has shaken confidence in the value of personal Bible study. Hence, just as the Mediævals tended to equate Church tradition with the Word of God, so modern Protestants tend to equate the words of scholars with the Word of God. We have fallen into the habit of accepting their pronouncements at second hand without invoking the Spirit’s help to search Scripture and see, not merely whether what they say is so (in so far as the lay Bible student is qualified to judge this), but also—often more important—whether God’s Word does not deal with more than the limited number of topics with which scholars at any one time are concerned. The result of this negligence is widespread ignorance among Churchmen as to what Scripture actually says. So it always is when the Church forgets how to search the Scriptures acknowledging its own blindness and looking to God’s Spirit to teach it God’s truth. There is no more urgent need today than that the Church should humble itself to learn this lesson once more.”

Donald Wood, Karl Barth and Self-Involving Hermeneutics

Donald Wood, “‘Ich sah mit Staunen’: reflections on the theological substance of Barth’s early hermeneutics,” SJT 58(2) (2005): 184–198.

“Barth clearly thinks interpretation is fundamentally self-involving; there is no room here for a hermeneutic in which maintaining a judicious distance from the text is regarded as a necessary condition for responsible interpretation. That said, his interest is not in promoting a general theory of personal knowledge as opposed to one that prizes detached objective knowledge. He is, rather, interested in how a sinful, unworthy reader may approach this text as it speaks of this God, or, perhaps better, as this God speaks through this text.”  [190]

“On a larger scale, see the slightly more qualified claim of Hans Frei, ‘The Doctrine of Revelation in the Thought of Karl Barth, 1909–1922’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, Yale University, 1956), 125–6: ‘Barth’s enduring concern during the period after the break with Liberalism was not simply that of method – although it was this also, and often primarily – but that of finding the clue to proper theological method, a proper understanding of the relation of God to man within a proper doctrine of God.’”  [197]

“Barth’s reaction against historical-critical interpretation has less to do with exegetical mechanics (many of which he freely and gratefully shares with more typical historical critics) than it does with substantive spiritual-theological questions regarding the freedom of God in his revelation, the inescapability of God’s act in Christ, and so on.”  [197]

Few Thoughts on Theological Exegesis, Jim West and Karl Barth

Posted in Hermeneutics, Historical Criticsm, Karl Barth, Theological Interpretation by Bacho on August 3, 2010

Jim West wrote a brief but insightful article about Theological Exegesis on The Bible and Interpretation site.  He argues that, “Commentators should be urged to follow the methodology of combining historical analysis with theological interpretation so that readers of their volumes learn that exegesis is both historical and theological in nature. Historical exegesis alone is insufficient because it lacks explanatory power, and theological exegesis alone is without proper foundation in an accurate understanding of scripture.”  Someone who is doing a research on reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture I salute his conclusion, “theologians have to become exegetes and exegetes have to become theologians. But that discussion is for another time.” In this post I want to bring up couple of thoughts by the way of dialogue.

First, there will be a push back from those who stand outside the confessional circles.  For example, in his recent review [RBL 04/2005] of Childs’ Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture H.G.M. Williamson writes, “I approach the Old Testament as a professing Christian, and in preaching and some forms of my writing I too struggle with it as part of Christian scripture.  In that guise, I recognize all too well the issues that Childs is raising, and I benefit from his insights into an appropriate hermeneutic.”  Yet he insists that there is value and legitimacy to writing in a “narrow academic context.”  In the academic context there seems to be suspicion those like Childs who seek to broaden hermeneutical tool-bag do so because in their mind “any exegesis that is not confessionally Christian is automatically deficient.”  Williamson complains about scholarship that uses explicitly Christian theological language, “Such scholarship may not be all that is to be said of a text.”  He is at pains to argue that historical-critical approach is not “inimical to Christian scripture.”  In my mind Williamson represents the current academic consensus that often sees Theological Exegesis as an added extra, a hermeneutical dessert reserved for those who have a taste for it.  Hence much more is needed than simply stating that historical criticism alone is deficient because it lacks explanatory power.  Scholars like Williamson are long ways away from concluding with West that, “Theological exegesis is simply the opposite side of the coin of hermeneutics.”

Second, at the very end of his article there is a following foot-note, “Anyone who reads Karl Barth’s famous ‘Romans’ knows full well what happens when theology is cut loose from scripture’s historical moorings: one learns a lot about the theology of the author and nothing about the theology of the Scriptures.”  I am newcomer to Barth, as is clearly evident from my previous posts.  Yet I wonder if West dismissed a valuable ally?  Few thoughts are in order here.

It seems that West treats Barth in ways that has become almost axiomatic among both evangelicals and liberals.  For example see Edgar McKnight’s dismissive criticism of Barth as having very little to contribute to to the contemporary hermeneutics (Meaning in Text, 65-72).  Yet according to Richard Burnett, “A new day has clearly dawned in Barth studies.”  It is evident in the wave of recent monographs on Barth’s Theological Exegesis.  Among the few that are on my shelf I would mention, Richard Burnett’s Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period, Paul McGlasson’s Jesus and Judas: Biblical Exegesis in Barth, and Mark Gignilliat’s Karl Barth and the Fifth Gospel: Barth’s Theological Exegesis of Isaiah. So it seems that there is a turn towards seeing Barth as a careful theological exegete rather than systematic theologian running around amok with an exegetical hose.

How might West lean on Barth in adding substance to his position?  Here are few suggestions based on Mark Wallace’s book The Second Naivete: Barth, Ricoeur, and the New Yale Theology. Contrary to his critics’ suspicion Barth consistently maintained that he was not a devout opponent of the historical-critical approach.  Reading his 2nd preface to the Epistle to the Romans I get a sense that he wants to shout, “I am not an enemy of historical criticism.”  According to Wallace, “His complaint was never against historical criticism per se but against historicist bias- the appeal to the historical world behind the Bible instead of the subject matter within the Bible.  Barth avers that real criticism does not stop at the threshold of historical inquiries into the language background, and authors of the Bible; rather, it presses forward to understand better the text as a message concerning God’s relationship to humankind.  He recognizes that the Bible is not ahistorical, authorless text, but, by the same token, the thrust of the scriptural message is missed if the Bible is read exclusively in the light of its ancient world origins and not in relation to its own inner-Christian starting point.”  What is missed in purely historical-critical reading of the text?  Wallace quotes Barth, “I have, moreover, no desire to conceal the fact that my ‘Biblicist’ method- which means in the end no more than ‘consider well’- is applicable also to the study of Lao-Tse and of Goethe.”  According to Wallace, “Consider well” is the true epithet for Barth’s hermeneutic: interpretation is guided by the text’s power to bring its unique subject matter face-to-face with the reader.”  Here in my mind lies the strength of Barth’s position.  Theological Exegesis is seen as indispensable for the task of hermeneutics because it gives us interpretive tools to engage with the subject matter of the text at hand.  Without it we face the danger of tricycling around the text with historical critical questions without ever really diving into it.  Exegete stands outside the text while the text’s subject matter bids him or her to enter into the world in front of the text to use Ricoeur’s language.  Or to paraphrase Barth, Theological Exegesis allows the text to speak.  We listen well.  And respond in faith and obedience.    

Franz Delitzsch on Reading the Bible as Christian Scripture

I just came across Franz Delitzsch’s short article titled “Must We Follow the New Testament Interpretation of the Old Testament Texts?” published in The Old Testament Student, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Nov., 1886), pp. 77-78

Here is Delitzsch on the relationship between the two testaments:

“The New Testament is the key to the Old, and the citations of the Old Testament in the New are the norm according to which the Christian interpretation must use these keys of knowledge (cf. Luke xi. 52). These citations, however, are not specimens of the art of grammatico-historical exegesis, but illustrations of prophecy by the history of its fulfillment. The apostles determine the meaning of the Scriptures, not according to the consciousness of the Old Testament writers, but according to the meaning of the Holy Spirit, who passes into them, as the one “auctor primarius” (cf. Ileb. III. 7).”

Furthermore, here is Delitzsch on Jesus as the key interpretation of scripture:

“The New Testament writers presuppose that not merely this or that passage in the Old Testament is a prophecy looking to the New Testament, but that the whole is a prophecy of the New. Jesus is the fulfilling of the law and the prophets (Matt. v. 17); he is the “end of the law” (Rom. x. 4). The history of the Old Testament, the cultus of the Old Testament and the prophecy of the Old Testament-all look to him as their goal.”

Finally, here is Delitzsch’s memorable words that point to our need to reading the Bible as a whole, two-part canonical Scripture:

“Without the New Testament, the Old Testament would be a labyrinth without a clue, a syllogism without a conclusion, a riddle without a solution, a torso without a head, a moon without a sun, since Christ is the proper interpreter of the Old Testament.”

Diachronic and Synchronic Reading on the Bible

On November 24,2009 Tareq Salahi and his wife Michaele Salahi arrived uninvited for a state dinner in honor of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the White House.  While the issues of national security, fame seeking and party crashing are beyond this blog entry, this is a proper context in which to address the issue of diachronic and synchronic reading of Biblical texts.  Upon their exposure, U.S. Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan should have asked them two questions:

1.How did you get here?

2.Who are you?

The first question would be akin to diachronic questions of the text.  What has been the process though which we got what we have before us.  The second question is about the synchronic reading of the text.  Who or what exactly am I looking at?  While academic skirmishes go on about the value of each of these types of questions, the White House secret service can testify that both of these types of questions are extremely valuable to what they do.

The Future of Critical Study of the Book of Isaiah

Critical study of the book of Isaiah began with Abraham ibn Ezra in the 11th century who recognized the dual authorship of this book.  SInce than it has had a peculiar history.  Here is what I mean.  Starting in the 17th century there has been one epoch-making thought per century.

17th century: Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1637-1677) inferred that Isaiah 40-66 derived from a sixth-century BC Babylonian background

18th century: The German scholar J.C. Doederlein puts Spinoza’s idea on the academic map with firm arguments.

19th century: Berhard Duhm published his famous commentary in 1892 where he argued for a further separation of Isaiah 56-66 as of postexilic origin.

Whether one agrees with these critical positions, it must be admitted that they have dominated the scene.  So here are two questions:

1.What was the epoch-making thought of the 20th century critical study of the book of Isaiah?

2.What seems to be the key direction in the Isaiah studies for the 21st century?