What Place Has History in the O.T. – Tracking the Debate Through Time

More notes from my O.T. History Class. This was a short outline for a presentation. This was the rough draft for my final project.

In 1651 Thomas Hobbes, in chapter 33 of Leviathan, marshaled a battery of passages such as Deut 34:6 (“no man knoweth of his sepulchre to this day,” implying an author living long after Moses’ death); Gen 12:6 (“and the Canaanite was then in the land,” implying an author living in a time when the Canaanite was no longer in the land); and Num 21:14 (referring to a previous book of Moses’ deeds), and concluded that none of these could be by Moses.

Hobbes thus begins by establishing that we cannot infallibly know another’s personal word to be divine revelation:

When God speaketh to man, it must be either immediately or by mediation of another man, to whom He had formerly spoken by Himself immediately. How God speaketh to a man immediately may be understood by those well enough to whom He hath so spoken; but how the same should be understood by another is hard, if not impossible, to know. For if a man pretend to me that God hath spoken to him supernaturally, and immediately, and I make doubt of it, I cannot easily perceive what argument he can produce to oblige me to believe it.

To Hobbes, it is manifest that none can know they are God’s word (though all true Christians believe it) but those to whom God Himself hath revealed it supernaturally. And therefore The question truly stated is: by what authority they are made law?

There is an enormous amount of biblical scholarship in this third part. However, once Hobbes’s initial argument is accepted (that no-one can know for sure anyone else’s divine revelation) his conclusion (the religious power is subordinate to the civil) follows from his logic. The very extensive discussions of the chapter were probably necessary for its time. The need (as Hobbes saw it) for the civil sovereign to be supreme arose partly from the many sects that arose around the civil war, and to quash the Pope of Rome’s challenge, to which Hobbes devotes an extensive section.

Hans W. Frei:

Long before the thought of ‘history of salvation’ became apart of historiography or theological inquiry the idea by those like Augustine was that the real world was formed by the sequences of biblical stories this covered creation to the final consumption that was to come, this included 1) man’s natural environment and 2) man’s secondary environment which is provided by himself (history or culture)

Three elements to traditional realistic interpretation of biblical stories:

Read Literal:

“The true historical reference of a story was a direct and natural concomitant of its making literal sense”

An event at this level in regards to being evidence has the best chance of becoming a reliable historical report

In a single world of one temporal sequence, there must in principle be one cumulative story to depict it

“the several biblical stories narrating sequential segments in time must fit together into one narrative.”

He sees figuration and typology as a natural extension of literal interpretation:

“Figuration was at once a literary and historical procedure, an interpretation of stories and their meanings by weaving them together into a common narrative referring to a single history and its patterns of meaning”

Must in principle embrace the experience of any present age or reader:

It is the reader’s duty to fit themselves into that world and they do this through figural interpretation

“He was to to see his disposition, his actions, and passions, the shape of his own life as well as that of his era’s events as figures of that storied world.”

His point was that such experiences, events, concepts were all ranged figurally into the smaller as well as the overarching story.  Biblical interpretation becomes an imperative need, but its direction was that of incorporating extra-biblical thought, experience, and reality into one real world detailed and made accessible by the biblical story – not the reverse.

Johannes Cocceius and Johann Albrecht Bengel:

“Tried to locate the events of their day vis a vis the narrative framework of biblical story and history, and to locate by means of biblical sayings the present stage of the actual events we experience and predict future stages as well as the end of actual history”

This was a sign of the breaking of literal meaning of the biblical narratives and the reference to actual events.  The narratives no longer provided an access to the events, they could now only verify them.

“Not only did an enormous amount of inquiry into factual truth (or falsity) of the biblical stories develop, but an intense concentration as well on their meaning and religious significance, whether factual or of some other sort”

Question becomes, Do the stories and whatever concepts may be drawn from them describe what we apprehended as the real world? Do they fit a more general framework of meaning than that of a single story?

Figural Reading:

1) Verbal or literal sense was now equated with the single meaning of statements, a logical and grammatical rule prevalent everywhere so that figural reading of the Bible seemed a senseless exception to it

2) The very attempt to read unity out of (or into) the Bible now appeared different from, if not incompatible with, the self-confinement of literal reading to specific texts

-no longer a persuasive instrument for unifying the canon

Realistic Reading:

– consists of matching the written description against the reconstruction of the probable historical sequence to which it referred.

– not only about history but also about specific historical sequences, so that they were not concerned with the unity of the canon

18th Century England:

– Relationship between revelation and theology and the problems in this concept are key

1) Rationality or credibility of the very idea of historical revelation

“Or is what is called revelation nothing more than a specific instantiation of what God had made known everywhere and all along, concerning truth and human happiness?”

“appeal to ‘mystery’ of revelation anything other than an admission that the idea itself is unintelligible, a token of that unwarranted intrusion of imagination or, worse yet, sheer ignorant superstition into matters religious which the new intellectual rigor must repel?”

2) How likely is it that such a thing has taken place?

“How authoritative, in short, how well attested are biblical accounts, especially those of miracles, since the natural presumption in a ‘scientific age’ is obviously against them?”

Debate was:

1) General credibility of miracles in a physical and historical world which was increasingly believed to be governed in accordance with natural law, conceived either prescriptively or descriptively

2) Credibility of the specific miracle accounts of the Bible, especially the NT including the claims to the fulfillment of prophecy

The plausibility of miracles both positive and negative was argued through external and independent evidence (i.e. geological evidence to explain a catastrophe over a large part of the earth for the Flood

18th Century Germany:

How and with the aid of what authority one settles the principles of biblical interpretation?

Reformation focused questions on authority and unity, Protestant questions on the detailing of the principles of textual interpretation

“The consequence of unity and universality in method of interpretation ensured unity of textual meaning also.”

The belief of a layered text such as literal, typological, spiritual, etc. was gone

Late 18th century with the help of Deism things changed,

“From now on, the harmony of historical fact, literal sense, and religious truth will at best have to be demonstrated; at worst, some explanation of the religious truth of the fact-like description will have to be given in the face of a negative verdict on its factual accuracy or veracity”

Unlike the external argument of the English the Germans was almost exclusively internal, they took a literary-historical approach

In his The Concept of Biblical Theology, Barr devotes a chapter to ‘story’ in which he notes that from the 1960s onwards he and others and others stressed the importance of story as a category in Old Testament studies. Story in this context is deliberately set against history, partly as a reaction to the emphasis on the acts of God in the Biblical Theology Movement (BTM). Story embraces material that is historical as well as that which includes myth and legend, and above all divine speech. Story focuses attention on the beginning, the progression and the culmination as more important than the historical realities behind the text. Barr notes that G. Ernest Wright and others in the BTM had already indicated the importance of story in biblical theology but he asserts that they made little of the actual story character of the Bible so that story functioned in their works more as an idea

Barr continues to see great value in approaching the Bible as story, as long as we don’t set this against historical criticism.

“That the story is a totality and to be read as such would seem to agree with the ‘holistic’ emphasis of many literary and canonical tendencies of today. But the fact that it is a totality does not mean that it has to be swallowed whole, uncritically.”

Barr,  defends taking the whole of the Bible as story. Making Genesis the starting point enables us to avoid past mistakes such as isolating the exodus from its broader narrative context. A story approach also connects with current understands of communal and personal identity.

Childs is less positive towards story and biblical theology than Barr. He discusses narrative under literary approaches to biblical theology. His major concern with narrative is that,

“The threat lies in divorcing the Bible when seen as literature from its theological reality to which scripture bears witness.”

Barr, by comparison, finds a story approach to the Bible helpful theologically in that it alerts us to the Bible as the raw data of theological reflection.

Brevard Childs levels this criticism against narrative approaches to biblical theology. In his Biblical Theology Childs includes narrative theology under ‘Literary Approaches to Biblical Theology. Referring to Barr and Frei, he says that

“initially the appeal to the subject matter of the Bible as ‘story’ served to shift the focus away from the perplexing problems of historical referentiality . . .”

Later he criticises this narrative approach because it also sidesteps theological issues: ‘many modern “narrative theologies” seek to avoid all dogmatic issues in the study of the Bible and seek ‘to render reality’ only by means of retelling the story.’  The problem can be seen, notes Childs, by the fact that liberals and conservatives agree on the centrality of narrative, but disagree on the nature of the Biblical story. Again he notes that ‘it has become increasingly evident that narrative theology, as often practised can also propagate a fully secular, non-theological reading of the Bible. The threat lies in divorcing the Bible when seen as literature from its theological reality to which scripture bears witness.

James Barr notes a shift in the paradigm of Biblical theology that moves from ‘revelation in history’ as the primary category to a ‘literary mode of reading.’ Story is then qualified in a literary way: narrative is a literary structure that creates a symbolic world. Or to put it another way, story is qualified in a linguistic way: the Bible offers a merely linguistically constructed narrative world. In this paradigm the historical and theological dimensions of the Biblical story are muted at best.

N.T. Wright:

In fact, the theological authority of the biblical story is tied up with its overarching narrative form. He offers a rich metaphor to explicate this authority. Imagine that a Shakespearian play is discovered for the first time but most of the fifth act is missing. The decision to stage the play is made. The first four acts and the remnant of the fifth act are given to well-trained and experienced Shakespearian actors who immerse themselves both in the first part of the play and in the culture and time of Shakespeare. They are told to work out the concluding fifth act for themselves.

This conclusion must be both consistent and innovative. It must be consistent with the first part of the play. The actors must immerse themselves in full sympathy in the unfinished drama. The first four acts would contain its own cumulative forward movement that would demand that the play be concluded in a way consistent and fitting with that impetus. Yet an appropriate conclusion would not mean a simple repetition or imitation of the earlier acts. The actors would carry forward the logic of the play in a creative improvisation. Such an improvisation would be an authentic conclusion if it were coherent with the earlier acts.

This metaphor provides a specific analogy for how the biblical story might function authoritatively to shape the life of the believing community. Wright sees the biblical story as consisting of four acts – creation, fall, Israel, Jesus – plus the first scene of the fifth act that narrates the beginning of the church’s mission. Furthermore this fifth act offers hints at how the play is to end. Thus the church’s life is lived out consistent with the forward impetus of the first acts and moving toward and anticipating the intended conclusion. The first scene of act five, the church’s story, begins to draw out and implement the significance of the first four acts, especially act four. The church continues today to do the same in fresh and creative ways in new cultural situations. This requires a patient examination and thorough immersion in what act four is all about, how act four is to be understood in light of acts one through three, and how the first scene of act five faithfully carries forward act four.

Theological interpretation will be as important as the literary or historical. Theology is concerned with claims about God embodied in a worldview – whether there is a God, his relation to the world, and whether or not he is acting to set the world right. The theological beliefs of the Biblical authors and its modern interpreters will be essential to Biblical scholarship: ‘ .  . . ‘theology’ highlights what we might call the god-dimension of a worldview. . . . As such it is a non- negotiable part of the study of literature and history, and hence of New Testament studies.’

The recovery of the Bible as one controlling story is important for Wright because that story provides the true worldview context for Biblical scholarship, allowing all dimensions of the Biblical text—theological, literary, and historical—to find full expression.

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