Thursday, February 02, 2012

Requirments for a successful reading of the Bible (sort of)

No, actually this is not an attempt at an exhaustive list of requirements for reading the whole bible, but Doug Campbell makes some really good points on this subject in relation to Paul, which certainly bear worth considering.

Campbell’s four criteria for a successful reading of Paul
Reading the Bible is a complex activity, one that involves multiple levels of interpretation. A plausible reading of Paul’s letters, Doug Campbell argues, needs to attend to a variety of requirements.

It must offer:

1. A coherent account of the lexical and syntactical data of a given Pauline text (the ‘exegetical level’. See The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009], 224).

For example, An account, e.g., of 1 Cor. 8:1-3 must negotiate textual variants, seek to relay whether and when citations from interlocutors begin/end, the existence and syntactical significance of the presence of conditional constructions, the relation between verbs and nouns etc.

2. A coherent account of the necessary ‘framing requirements’ (general, proximate and circumstantial. See Ibid., 225–28). That is, a reading needs to demonstrate integrity with respect to its cultural and linguistic context, its relation to immediately adjacent texts (Campbell, influenced by Derrida, studiously avoids simplistic notions of ‘context’), and the historical situation surrounding its production.

Does, e.g., a reading of 1 Cor. 8:1-3 cohere with the nature and function of pagan religion in 1st century Corinth, the developing argument in 1 Cor. 8-11, and the rhetorical strategies in 1 Cor. generally?

(One will perhaps find practical assent to these points in most works concerned with academic biblical studies. Certainly, not all will be as circumspect in their reference to and handling of ‘context’, because still common is what has been called ‘atomism’. Kavin Rowe has called ‘atomistic’ readings ‘the perennial peril of the modern exegete’ [see his World Upside Down, Oxford: OUP, 2009, p.6]!)

3. A plausible construal of the argumentative dynamics in a given text (if they are present, as they tend to be in much of Paul, at least). The point is this: if an exegetical proposal presents the reader with a coherent argument, it ought to be preferred over a construction which suggests fundamental confusion.

Does a reading of 1 Cor. 8:1-7, e.g., demonstrate a coherent argument, with respect to its subject concerning food offered to idols, love and knowledge? Or does a reading portray a fundamentally confused argument?

(Some of the best exegetical works are obedient to this requirement. But still, a related issue is often missing, for reasons hinted at in the previous post!)

4. A coherent reading must also supply a plausible theoretical account of the ‘object’ under discussion. As Campbell writes: ‘The arguments in certain texts reach out beyond their own strings of signifiers and adjacent frames and purport to grasp features of broader reality – what a long European tradition tends to speak of as “the object”. Such texts attempt to communicate to others about his object, giving an accurate account of it. They are fundamentally referential’ (Deliverance, pp. 228–29).

For example, though to oversimplify somewhat, does a reading of 1 Cor. 8:1-3, provide a coherent account of the God-human relation, and is it a plausible account in light of the homoousios, etc.?

This last level is perhaps the most neglected in NT scholarship, and one could argue that the misunderstandings of Campbell’s work by many of his reviewers boils down to the scholarly ‘amnesia’ and the ‘disappearing subject matter’, eloquently lamented by Bockmuehl in Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). At this level, a host of important issues pour in, such as Wirkungsgeschichte, creedal confessions, etc.

The key point for Campbell is to stress that a successful reading of a Pauline text must possess integrity at all of these levels; failure to consider one jeopardises the whole. I can’t help but think of Barth’s words at this point:

‘My complaint is that recent commentators confine themselves to an interpretation the text which seems to me to be no commentary at all, but merely the first step towards a commentary. Recent commentaries contain no more than a reconstruction of the text, a rendering of the Greek words and phrases by their precise equivalents, a number of additional notes in which archaeological and philological material is gathered together, and a more or less plausible arrangement of the subject-matter in such a manner that it may be historically and psychologically intelligible from the standpoint of pragmatism’. But we must ‘press beyond this preliminary work to an understanding of Paul’ in such a way that ‘involves more than a mere repetition in Greek or in German of what Paul says: it involves a reconsideration of what is set out in the Epistle, until the actual meaning of it is disclosed’ (Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968], 6–7).
So, exegetical, framing, argumentative, and theoretical. Convinced?


At 2/06/2012 8:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do you have a picture of K. Rowe with this post?

At 2/06/2012 8:11 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

I mention him in the post. No other reason!

At 2/09/2012 6:03 AM, Anonymous Cutter Koons said...

You mean you didn't because he's extremely good looking?

At 2/09/2012 9:52 AM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

:) Some people have it all, eh?!

At 4/27/2012 1:33 PM, Anonymous Roger Haydon Mitchell said...

Would you regard the 4th point as essentially hermeneutical rather than exegetical? If so, then the suggestion is that exegesis without hermeneutics is not a true reading. That would certainly be my standpoint.


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