The Psalter as Mirror: Reflecting on a Metaphor

The Psalter is not only full of rich imagery and metaphors, but throughout church history interpreters have used metaphors to try and capture what it is. One of the most valuable of these metaphors is that of a mirror. In modern treatments of the Psalms it is often John Calvin (1509–1564) who is cited for this metaphorical insight [1]. We will return to his use of this metaphor below. The application of such a metaphor, however, predates Calvin by more than a millennium.

As far as I am aware, it was Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296–373) who first applied such a metaphor to the Psalms:

And it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them. For in fact he who hears the one reading receives the song that is recited as being about him, and either, when he is convicted by his conscience, being pierced, he will repent, or hearing of the hope that resides in God, and of the succor available to believers—how this kind of grace exists for him—he exults and begins to give thanks to God.
Athanasius, The Letter to Marcellinus [2]

Athanasius’ wonderful work known as The Letter to Marcellinus gives an account of the psalms, their value, and their use. He tells of them as though he learnt everything from an old master of the Psalms which I take to be a modest self-reference. In the quote above, we see Athanasius referring to a mirror in its most basic function, reflecting a person. He claims that in singing a psalm there is an emotional dynamic in which the singer perceives themselves with new insight. This is an active process in which unperceived emotions are made tangible, and positive change is actualised. The focus for Athanasius is specially connected with penitence.

Before we return to Calvin, we note that Martin Luther (1483–1546) also used this metaphor of a mirror for reflecting on the Psalms. There is both continuity with Athanasius, and novelty in his application of the image. Just as Athanasius’ insight was made in his major work on the Psalms, for Luther too the metaphor is employed in a major work—his fresh translation of the whole Psalter into German. Luther produced many works on the Psalms but it his translation of the Psalter into the vernacular that was a central achievement. This book was so popular it went through a huge number of print runs in short space of time. Luther saw fit to revise it twice. This quote comes from the second edition, as well as all subsequent editions to this day:

In a word, if you would see the holy Christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, then take up the Psalter. There you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true gnothi seauton [Know yourself], as well as God himself and all creatures.
Luther, Preface to the Psalter, second edition (1528) [3]

Here, for Luther, in addition to the Psalms reflecting their reader they reflect Christendom. This additional dimension owes much to Luther’s claim that the Psalms are a Bible in miniature. It is unclear whether Luther is consciously or unconsciously following Athanasius or coming afresh to a similar metaphorical insight.

Turning to Calvin, we find him using essentially the same imagery, also in his major work on the Psalms—the preface to his massive commentary on all 150 biblical psalms. It is worth quoting him at length:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandment which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particulars in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed. It is certainly a rare and singular advantage, when all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into the light, purged from that most baneful infection, hypocrisy. In short, as calling upon God is one of the principal means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise cannot be found elsewhere than in The Psalms, it follows, that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine.
John Calvin, Preface to Psalms Commentary [4]

Again, his dependence on Athanasius and/or Luther is unclear. Whatever the inspiration for Calvin, I judge that his claim is the richest. It has the pithy precise hermeneutical claim that we, as readers and singers of the Psalms, are reflected with an actualising clarity in this remarkable book. It also points to not only penitence, but salvation and virtue too.

This metaphor, whether in the hands of Athanasius, Luther, or Calvin, is hermeneutically rich. It makes a claim about the nature of the text, about us, and about how God works salvation and sanctification. Such a claim is vital in complementing modern critical insights. For all their rich detail we cannot get from their literary, religious, and cultic insights to substantiate the life-changing dogmatic claims implicit in the pre-critical work of the three interpreters above.

Taken together with modern criticism, the mirror metaphor brings us close to the insight of Brueggemann that in these ancient texts we find ourselves. Whether we read whilst in a state of orientation or disorientation they reflect our experience. Perhaps, unlike Brueggemann, we can look directly to God’s providence and grace through his Holy spirit for the actualisation of a new reflection or revelation—the reorientation that we so frequently need, and we are so often promised in this small Bible. These songs need to be sung regularly, for in Christ we need to be reoriented continually, even from the status quo of orientation that all too quickly loses its brightness as we look elsewhere than to the one on whom we should fix our eyes. On other occasions we need to own these words to perceive the crucified one amidst the brokenness that is our primary disorientation.

Whatever state we are in, we look at the Mirror to perceive ourselves so as to be changed. To look at this reflection is no narcissistic preoccupation, this is the beginning of our receding from the spotlight, our growing strangely dim, that we can see Christ who is in this book and who also lies behind both it and us.



  1. See for example, The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schutzer and David M. Howard Jr. (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013, pp.52–54 which plays on Calvin’s associated insight into the Psalms as a language of all seasons of the soul which is a corollary of the mirror metaphor. See also Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984, p.17.
  2. Athanasius, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Latter to Marcellinus, Robert C. Gregg (translator), Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980, p.111.
  3. Luther, ‘Preface to the Psalter’ (1528), in Luther’s Works Volume 35, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, pp.256–257.
  4. Calvin, Psalms Commentary Volume 1, James N. Anderson (translator), 1845, p.19.

An Enarratio of Psalm 2: Behold God’s Anointed

This post follows on from an earlier post: An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man. This is therefore the second in what is an experiment which asks what we miss with modern biblical criticism and what we can gain by sympathy with some aspects of Augustine’s interpretive paradigm for reading the Psalms. It bears the name Enarratio to echo Augustine’s remarkable and massive Enarrationes in Psalmos, or Expositions of the Psalms. Like this great work this allusion is an exposition not a scientific exegesis. It reads the psalms through post-Easter spectacles; declaring that without such spectacles our reading will be short-sighted.


Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? A rhetorical question? Well perhaps, but only because the answer is written so clearly across the pages of several thousand years of history. Even in prehistory, at Babel, the nations conspired with a skyscraper to reach to the heavens. In our days, skyscrapers mark the competition between nations—vanity projects that are also in vain. The question could be restated: When did the nations not conspire? Has there ever been a time when the leaders of the nations conspired not against God but for peace? Over millennia, projects and prospects of hope arise as nations gather to aspire to something good. Only for them to fracture into groups to conspire once again.

The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’ Why do they rebel? How can they know better than the almighty? Is it that they ‘know not what they do?’. God’s anointed have always been fragile because they are one-and-all, frail men and women. So frail that the first king anointed in Israel rose up against God. Saul never grew from the time we first see him in the scriptures—failing in his task of donkey hunting. In throwing off imagined constraints he was imprisoned by bad choices. He was replaced by a less likely anointed one—the least likely of eight sons. This anointed one founded a royal line of anointed ones. An anointed son, with a heart that God saw was committed to agape despite its proneness to unrestrained eros. This son, this first David, faced threats from would be kings in God’s own nation, as well as the kings of nations all around. This son was a foretaste of The Son—blessed David redux. For though David’s anointing was most obviously as king, on some occasions he was also priest. He also made both music and song. He turned out to be not just a poet inspired by the muses, but a prophet inspired by the Spirit.

The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. God’s first move is merriment and how could it be otherwise? The nations abuzz with plots are like angry bees, but in their mortality, they have no sting that can harm the immortal. The one in heaven’s laughter is not an attempt at provocation but just the uncontainable mirth at the ridiculous idea that there could ever be enough creatures to overthrow the Creator.

He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, not because of any churlishness or delight in such a sad reality. The freedom of God, rejected and misread as chains, gives all kings, indeed all people, a digital choice. Free to choose the way of delight in instruction, or the way of making new rebellious rival rules. How can God not be angry and wrathful? Though we struggle with such stark anthropomorphic metaphors. Why is it we question God’s right to wrath when in the same breath we decry that we cannot see his hand at work amidst the nations now? God’s hand is stayed at present because he has granted freedom, but a day must come when justice is done.

And yet, there is so much more before the day of anger because we hear him speaking not words of judgement and doom but saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ The first David meted out judgement but the ultimate incumbent on the throne of God’s holy mountain does something new. His installation was the antithesis of coronation splendour. His crown was of thorns. His robe was nakedness. His hands could grip no ruling rod of iron because they were held open with metal of a sharper form, to welcome one-and-all.

The first David, at his hard-earned investiture heard the priests recite this liturgy: I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, ‘You are my son;

    today I have become your father.

Other kings and other sons of this Davidic line heard the same words. Like a microcosm of all humanity some of them believed these words, some did not. For a time, the line appeared to be broken and the promise lay all but dead. But then came a voice of one calling in the desert who pointed at a man from Galilee. This stonemason, already destined to be a cornerstone, chose to be anointed in the river Jordan. He knew that his baptism there in water was but a foretaste of a baptism in blood when finally he would come to Zion’s holy hill. In days gone by, David’s line were proclaimed as kings by bearded priests. This final Son, who is both first and last, heard the Lord’s decree spoken from heaven by the Spirit: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ Words of mission and purpose received with joy, whilst being anointed in river water.

Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. The first David and his son founded a nation which seemed to honour and fulfil these words—at least in their own eager eyes. David redux knew this promise too. So awesome was the awakening of his baptism that he went into the desert like his people of old. Once there, another promised him the ends of the earth as his possession, but he did not bow the knee to that ancient serpent.

You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’ Though there is an immense time between his anointing and his execution of full authority, that Day will come. Though such language might be misheard as a sign of pique this is instead the best balance of mercy and justice in a creation of freedom and of love.

Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. We can but hope they will hear and obey. O that they might Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. There are all too few signs that they will. No indication that they will hear this wise saying: Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. So finally, we are called to remember that this a song not just for kings. We can all heed its closing wisdom, for Blessed are all who take refuge in him.


The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: A Review

The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney (editors), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 540pp. pb. £21.99, ISBN 978-0-521-70965-1.


I should declare at the outset that I was sent a review copy of this book by the publisher. This post is the first of three which review The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at length. Each post looks at around one third of the volume.


This review follows the five-fold structure of this edited volume. Each of the twenty-three contributed chapters is reviewed. In the book’s introduction the two editors sketch the intended nature of the work around two main aims. The first aim is to show how a neutral interpretative stance is impossible given the nature of the object being explored. This explains the book’s title which sets side-by-side two different designations for the object of this study. The second aim, which coheres with the first, is to demonstrate that collaborative possibilities exist between scholars who have different presuppositions.

The editors seem a little defensive regarding this work’s diversity [p.3] and it is rather disappointing to discover that only three of the twenty-three contributors are women. The editors also acknowledge the lack of coverage of advocacy approaches. This deficit seems at odds with the second aim of the work. This said the editors clearly faced a challenge in ensuring the contributions would fit the one-volume format necessitated by the series.

Part I: Text and canon

The two chapters in this short opening Part work well together in laying out the challenges posed by the subject matter: Which texts are the subject of this book? How were they transmitted and preserved? What label should they be given?

Chapter 1: Texts, titles, and translations (James C. Vanderkam, University of Notre Dame)

The outline of textual sources follows the expected survey of the nature, age and veracity of the Masoretic Text (Hebrew), the Septuagint (Greek), the Samaritan Pentateuch (Hebrew consonantal text), the Peshitta (Syriac), the Vulgate (Latin) and the Targums (Aramaic). More recent sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the questions they raise regarding the existence of minor and major textual variants are also explored. The almost universal privileging of the Masoretic Text is outlined by surveying the principles of textual criticism behind five major English language translations. This issue is crystallised in the handling of the two rival textual traditions of the book of Jeremiah—in Church tradition the longer but more recent text is preferred. This contradicts normal text-critical rules which favour age when establishing textual reliability.

Chapter 2: Collections, canons, and communities (Stephen B. Chapman, Duke University)

The second introductory chapter gives attention to the difficult question of just what the texts in question should be named. The various options—Old Testament, Hebrew Bible, First Testament, Jewish Scripture, Tanakh—are introduced at the outset so as to set out the nature of the challenge. The lack of any consensus on the meaning of terms such as scripture and canon is also rehearsed. After examining the difficulty of establishing anything approaching a consensus regarding the canon’s formation, the question of the name for these writings is considered as fully as space allows. Chapman sensitively outlines the value of the various terms as well as the potential for anachronism and sociological insensitivity. He defends the dual designation reflected in the volumes title. He also advocates faith-based scholarly reading but is aware of the possibility of sectarianism and urges the pursuit of dialogue. This chapter closes with a clear and helpful survey of the differences over which individual literary units are in the Hebrew Bible/The Old Testament (hereafter HB/OT) and the diverse order of these units in the Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions.

Part II: Historical background

The three chapters in this section have been carefully demarcated so as to provide a clear development from history via religion to text. The clarity of this threefold content is welcome at one level—at another this section seems to continually hint at interpretative complexity and challenges without ever stating them.

Chapter 3: The ancient Near Eastern context (Kenton L. Sparks, Eastern University)

This chapter opens with an explanation of how scholarship has understood the relationship between the HB/OT and Near Eastern cultures, especially those of Mesopotamia. This has changed over two centuries, largely because of the shift in consensus regarding the dating of the writing of the HB/OT. The bulk of the chapter covers five time periods over which the ancient Near Eastern context had different influences upon Israel and the HB/OT:

  • 3000‒1200 BCE
  • 1200‒1000 BCE
  • 1000‒722 BCE
  • 722‒586 BCE
  • 586‒331 BCE.

The year 1200 BCE is around the time that archaeology reveals Israelite settlement in Palestine and the Transjordan and 1000 BCE is around the date of the reigns of Saul and David. The next two key dates are known with precision: 722 BCE is the date of the Assyrian conquest of the north and 586 BCE the date of Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians. 331 BCE marks Alexander’s conquest of Palestine and its neighbours. The highlighting of 331 BCE is puzzling as the fifth section also explores the subsequent Maccabean period. Given the considerable differences between the five time periods, this chapter seems to bite off more than it can fully chew.

Chapter 4: The history of Israelite religion (Brent A. Strawn, Emory University)

Strawn opens by unpacking the paradigm shift caused by modern archaeological work—in a few decades there has been a reversal from biblical privilege to a situation in which ‘ancient texts and cultures are now the source and judge of the Hebrew Bible’ [p.89]. Strawn then considers three fundamental questions about Israelite religion: What are its sources? What is its locus? What is its content? He explains that despite the paradigm shift a new consensus on how to handle the sources has not emerged. Much work still can be seen as either archaeological or ‘tradition historical’. He argues that the challenge is to make the ‘or’ an ‘and’. On the matter of content, Strawn explains that increasingly two complementary loci are considered: the ‘official’ religion and ‘popular’ religion. Though framed in different ways as evolutionary (folk to cult) or as a result of societal power play, the modern interpreter faces a complex hermeneutical task. Strawn advocates the recognition of multiple loci which requires even more nuance and care. Closely related to these considerations is the question of the place occupied by theology and practice/ritual in defining the content of Israelite religion. Strawn concludes with a plea to unite belief and practice as an approach coherent with the nature of the Hebrew Bible itself.

Chapter 5: The Hebrew Bible and history (Marc Zvi Brettler, Duke University)

In this contribution history is defined as ‘a depiction of the past’ [p.109]. This helpfully prevents the clash between recent critical definitions of history with the more complex goals of ancient historians. When it comes to the Bible specifically its account of history is, according to Brettler, ‘a narrative that presents a past’ [p.110]. Brettler proceeds to demonstrate the importance of the past to the biblical authors. This interest in how things were different in the past and how this affects the present is shown to be present throughout the whole HB/OT. Although this reflection on the past is pervasive the different types of literature depict the past differently. The challenge of prose accounts of the past is that they differ immensely in nature, and the reason for their preservation is often opaque. Some poetic texts do indicate why they are referring to the past, for example Psalm 78 explains that the Exodus is recounted so that future generations might have confidence in God.

This contribution concludes with an exploration of how the diverse accounts of the past function. These include explaining the present, justifying a specific political position and for religious purposes. Because of the uncertainty of authorial/editorial intention/s and the frequently large distance between events and text, Brettler concludes that caution is needed in using the HB/OT as a historical source. The implications of this for the contemporary religious reader is beyond the scope of this chapter.

Part III: Methods and approaches

In this third Part of the book it is clear that the contributors though experts within a specific methodology, are committed to a broad approach which uses the best historical-critical, sociological and literary approaches in tandem.

Chapter 6: Historical-critical methods (John J. Collins, Yale Divinity School)

The origin and breadth of historical-critical methods are explored at the outset. Much of the chapter then explores the principle of criticism, the principle of analogy and the principle of correlation, after Ernst Troeltsch. The principle of autonomy—assumed in historical-critical enquiry post-Kant—is added as a fourth principle which typifies these methods. The nature of historical-critical enquiry is appraised by considering its limits and its critics. Collins concludes that the rather individualistic principle of autonomy must take account of the social nature of knowledge. More significantly the principle of analogy ‘should be understood as a pragmatic guide rather than a metaphysical dogma’ [p.143]. Collins rounds off his contribution by indicating how literary approaches have enriched historical-critical methods in recent and contemporary scholarship.

Chapter 7: Social science models (Victor H. Matthews, Missouri State University)

Matthews explains the multifaceted nature of such approaches as including sociolinguistic, rhetorical, economic, political and social aspects. He argues that such approaches are an asset to interpretation for recovering what life was like in ancient times. The themes of ‘identity and kinship’ and ‘honor and shame’ are explored with numerous insightful nuggets used to illustrate the meaning and value of sociological approaches. The concept of spatiality, in terms of a culture’s recognised places in which society’s members function or conceptualise things is explored. The brevity of this section is frustrating; although the basic idea is explained well the specific concepts of Firstspace, Secondspace and Thirdspace remain less clearly developed. The chapter ends very abruptly with an outline of the nature of discourse analysis.

Chapter 8: Literary approaches to the Hebrew Bible (Adele Berlin, University of Maryland)

Berlin opens her essay in a lively and engaging way by recapitulating what might now be viewed as three ‘puzzles’. The first puzzle is the peculiar fact that scholars ‘forgot’ that the Bible was literature for such a prolonged period. Berlin points to the convergence of the work of diverse scholars as the foundation for the rediscovery of the Bible as literature. This introduces the second puzzle which is the length of time over which scholars focused almost exclusively on narrative at the expense of other forms, especially poetry and legal texts. Berlin highlights a third puzzle, the initial antipathy between literary and historical critical enquiry. Having established the contemporary acceptance of literary approaches, Berlin helpfully focuses on the events of Genesis 34 for the rest of the chapter. The difficulty in providing a valid title to the events of this chapter hints at the fruitfulness of approaching this text as literature. This fruitfulness is clearly illustrated in the remaining pages.

Of the opening eight chapters, this is the one that contributes to the whole and sparkles in its own right. All of the previous chapters are solid helpful contributions but it is Berlin’s which has a freshness and vitality which takes it beyond the tight constraints of this edited volume.

In the next post the nine chapters which cover Subcollections and genres will be reviewed.


The Journey Motif in Life, Art and Scripture

Human beings have, since prehistory, attempted to explain life as a journey. In a physical sense life is a journey from the helplessness we display at birth to the lifelessness of death. The physical nature of ‘the end’ is all too tangible. Science can probe it and concludes it is indeed journey’s end. Many world religions claim that this is not a final end, but there is something beyond our earthly voyage. The proposals vary from a hope of paradise to ideas of reincarnation. Orthodox Christianity testifies to an afterlife in terms of two poles: (i) bodily resurrection, and (ii) the New Heaven and New Earth.

The common experience of being frail beings together with diverse religious claims, contribute to a pervasive theme in culture, what I refer to here as the Journey Motif. It is found in a huge variety of cultural expressions such as novels, poems, cinema, everyday idioms and poetry. The examples I will use below will undoubtedly be culturally bound and limited by my experience and likes. Nevertheless, this will I trust be a helpful journey about journeys. Our destination is the Psalms and the blessing they are on the Life of Faith.

Everyday Idioms
There are numerous idioms and sayings in the English language which make use of a journey motif. I am not suggesting that these phrases are thoroughgoing metaphysical reflections or conscious nods to religious expectation. The point is simply that our language is riddled with such turns of phrase which collectively hint at the bigger picture of the journey of life. On a daily basis we understand such language without any effort. This is the case even when it relates to a context which is not a journey. For example:

  • “The business venture was going nowhere” means that the enterprise concerned is not successful, it is self-evident that it would not be expected to physically move.
  • “Her career was really going places” might be true even if the career was based in the same physical location. The same person might be said to have a successful career path.
  • “After years of study it was finally the home stretch”. Again the person concerned might have sat in lecture rooms, a library and their study but the idea of a journey ‘works’.
  • “Despite having it all he had itchy feet”. We know that this is not some fungal infection but that someone is thinking about changing their circumstances. This might, or might not, be an actual journey.
  • In times of crisis people often choose places to stay or new relationships that might otherwise be undesirable and we sagely note that they have settled for “any port in a storm”.
  • Someone making hasty life choices might soon discover that the “wheels fall off”.
  • Those who are more successful are often said to be ‘way ahead’ or ‘leading the way’.

Popular Music
George Harrsion’s Any Road, is a conscious reflection on the journey motif. In the song he has fun with the very idea that life as a journey is purposeful: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there’. Other popular songs portray relationships in the language of a journey. One example, among many, is Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time:

Sometimes you picture me –
I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear
What you’ve said –
Then you say – go slow –
I fall behind –
The second hand unwinds

Some popular music goes further with the journey motif by means of the concept album. In a concept album a narrative unfolds. Sometimes the story can be difficult to discern with the artist/s storytelling in a manner which leads the listener unsure of the details. In other examples the story is portrayed with sustained intentionality and clarity. Such a narrative is told in Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There the entire life of the protagonist Pink is unfolded, from birth to death and then beyond. This work is a self-conscious reflection on the potential reality that lies behind the journey that is our lives. One of Pink Floyd’s latest works, The Endless River, reflects on the journey motif using mostly instrumental music. Rather poignantly the album which was released in 2014 uses work recorded prior to the death of band member Richard Wright in 2008, and it seems to consciously reflect on his absence. The album cover and the album title work to this end before the music is even encountered. It is almost as if they hope that there is an endless river but have little confidence in the possibility of life beyond death.

Many of the novels of the nineteenth century were also explorations of the journey of their hero or antihero through a large part of their life. The journey for Dickens is often one through social standing in Victorian society, such as Pip in Great Expectations and the eponymous and hapless hero of Oliver Twist. Such works typically see the end of the journey as settled existence in a place of social standing. Looking beyond life’s physical journey was the preserve of other types of art and later novels.

Some works of literature capture a journey motif very literally. The two best known works of J. R. R. Tolkien do this. The Hobbit which tells of the adventures of the Halfling Bilbo Baggins is even subtitled There and Back Again. Bilbo is fortunate enough to benefit from his adventurous journey and arrive home, changed for the better. In The Lord of the Rings Bilbo’s adopted nephew Frodo departs on his own dramatic adventures and eventually returns home. For Frodo, however, things are not better back home. Frodo has to leave his life in his homeland of The Shire and journey over the sea prematurely to the blessed lands.

Tolkien’s work is rich with the journey motif often with a poignant depth behind it, redolent with transcendent mystery. See my earlier post on Tolkien’s poem The Road Goes Ever On which is found in both of his Hobbit-centred works. The same motif, with the same haunting depth, is found in a poem, Bilbo’s Last Song, which Tolkien gave to his secretary, Joy Hill, in 1966. This is beautifully captured in the BBCs 1981 radio adaption of The Lord of the Rings, in which the now ancient Bilbo sings the song as he and Frodo depart Middle-Earth with a number of other key protagonists from the War of the Ring. Here is the middle of three verses:

Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
the wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
beneath the ever-bending sky,
but islands lie behind the Sun
that I shall raise ere all is done;
lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.

Such language undoubtedly echoes Tolkien’s Catholic faith. This is one of the reasons why his writing has a mythical authenticity so often absent from work of the same Fantasy genre. Much post-Tolkien Fantasy literature has a central story which is defined, like Tolkien’s famous works, around a journey motif. Very often these fail to live up to anything like Tolkien because there is no conscious depth behind the motif.

Epic poetry from the ancient world was very often themed around journeys. In many cases reality was explored as gods enter the story or mysterious objects are collected from uncharted parts of the world. More modest modern poetry also makes significant use of the journey motif. Perhaps the most famous example is Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken. Here is just one verse:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Interestingly Frost’s poem is often misunderstood with readers making more of it than Frost ever intended. Frost wrote the poem to suggest that indecision in life was undesirable. So ingrained, however, is the journey motif that this poem has been invested with religious and metaphysical freight by many readers.
The journey motif has arguably proven even more dominant in cinema than in literature. There is a whole genre of film known as the Road Movie. There are numerous examples, Thelma and Louise is arguably one of the most well-known. A Road Movie of this type is typically one where the protagonists go on a journey which removes them from their ordinary life. There is an expectation that if they survive they will return to life as changed people.

There are other films in which the journey motif takes on greater scale because the journey is central to understanding something bigger than the protagonists’ lives. Such films have been produced for years but there has been a recent spate, for example: The Road (2009), The Book of Eli (2010), The Maze Runner (2014) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

All these examples are what can be termed post-apocalyptic in that we see the aftermath of a disaster which has destroyed the world and human society as we know it. The story generally revolves around understanding some aspect of the disaster or how humankind can respond in some new dynamic way.

The Way
The Bible is full of examples of what I have called the journey motif. The most important is the reference in both testaments to ‘the way’. Proverbs captures it so:

I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness.
Proverbs 4:11

There are other similar references in the Wisdom books and many Psalms (see below) which have a wisdom theme. In the New Testament ‘the Way’ takes on new depth of meaning. In the gospels, first as Jesus is anticipated to be part of its redefinition and then because he goes even further and redefines it around himself:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’
Mark 1:3

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
John 14:6

In the book of Acts we find that the Jewish renewal movement that became Christianity is frequently labelled as ‘the Way’. For example:

About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way.
Acts 19:23

The Bible takes the pervasive journey motif and makes some very clear claims as to how the idea coheres with the reality centred on the God of Israel and the Risen Christ. In short ‘the Way’ is what we call a faithful life lived before God. In the Hebrew Bible this way is followed in obedience to the Torah; a wise response to Yahweh’s instruction. In this manner those following the way are the righteousness. In the New Testament these ideas remain but are transfigured as a result of the self-revelation of Yahweh as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Psalms
The overall biblical testimony is that this life that we experience now is a journey; what is helpfully termed the Life of Faith. Its actual goal lies beyond what we can see, or test, here and now. The journey continues after death with the resurrection of God’s people. Those found in Christ will be given new bodies and made whole. Their dwelling will be with God in the New Heaven and the New Earth. The Psalms are no exception to this overarching metanarrative. As they are part way through the trajectory of understanding of the Way it is anachronistic to read the New Testament back into them to hastily. So, for example, Zion is the language of dwelling with God and the destination beyond physical death, but we should be slow to eclipse its broader significance and role as a key aspect of First Testament faith.

The importance of the language of journey is central to the Psalter. It is there at the very outset in a verse which rounds off a series of rich metaphors describing the ‘two ways’:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 1:6

It is mentioned again in Psalm 2:12 as a reminder that at the outset of the Psalter following ‘the way’ is a key theme. The Way, and other journey language, occur frequently throughout the Psalter, so for example:

  1. The idea of a way, or the ways, is found in 5:8; 10:5; 17:4; 18:21,30,32; 25:4; 25:9,12; 27:11; 32:8; 35:6; 36:4; 37:5,7,23,34 and 39:1 in Book I alone.
  2. The idea of a journey along a path is seen in 1:1; 16:11; 17:5; 23:2; 25:4; 25:10 and 27:11 in Book I. It appears essentially as a synonym for the idea of a way or ways.

In some cases the idea seems to be part of intentional design of the Psalms. Psalm 25, for example, brings together a number of questions and themes raised earlier in the Psalms (see 15:1,2 and 24:3,4):

Who are they that fear the Lord?
    He will teach them the way that they should choose.
Psalm 25:12

Psalm 119, which occupies such a massive place in Book V and within the Book as a whole, makes frequent reference to the journey motif as can be seen by the frequency of some related words (in NRSV) in the Table below.

Way/s 1, 14, 15, 26, 29, 33, 37, 59, 104, 128, 168
Path 35, 105
Walk 1, 3, 45
Astray/stray 10, 67, 176
Wander 21
Steps 128, 133
Feet 59, 101, 105
(journey’s) End 33, 87, 112

The Psalter also has a number of psalms that are best understood as psalms of pilgrimage. Most obviously psalm 84 and the Psalms of Ascents (120-134). They, along with others, are likely to have been used during pilgrimage to the Jerusalem during the various Jewish festivals. The Psalms of Ascents are explored in a couple of previous posts.

In the time of the Jewish diaspora, when the Psalms were finally edited to make the Psalter, pilgrimage was very often no longer an option. The Psalter was edited to take on some aspects of the dynamic of pilgrimage. In the same way, for us today, the Psalter can be seen to take on a special place in the Life of Faith. Through its incorporation of pilgrimage psalms, the prominence of the Psalms of Ascents, the on-going language incorporating the journey motif and its carefully crafted journey from, obedience and petition, to the final crescendo of praise, we have a book to carry with us on the Life of Faith. Over two millennia Christians have used the Psalter ‘on the road’ in diverse ways. I would not want to be prescriptive about exactly how we use it. The general point is, however, clear, we must ensure that we are intentional about our use of this gift that God has given us for the Way. As the psalmist knows from the outset of the journey we should be delighting in this instruction and meditating on these words (1:2). The result of this practice is that our life’s journey will crystallise into a remarkably static blessing:

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

Psalm 1:3

T. S. Eliot and Reading the Psalms

I recently stumbled across an essay on Literary Criticism by T. S. Eliot.[1] A number of issues that Eliot explores in the paper resonate with how we might read the Psalms appropriately. I hope that looking at Eliot’s essay will bear fruit for our use of the Psalms today. I need to be clear from the outset that Eliot was specifically addressing Literary Criticism. In particular his eye was on poetry, which of course coheres with our interest in the Psalms. I think the parallel with our reading the Psalms today is fair, as Literary Criticism for Eliot essentially means reading correctly.

Eliot helpfully distinguishes between two aspects of literary criticism: enjoyment and understanding.[2] For Eliot both are essential for a legitimate reading of poem. Much of his essay revolves around how one, at the expense of the other is problematic. For example, this comes to the fore in his comments about life experiences that influence the poet. Eliot refers to some debate over the influence of Wordsworth’s love interests on the quality of his poetry. This includes the scholarly conjecture regarding how this might have impacted Wordsworth’s poetic output. Eliot is not convinced that such factors are an aid to engaging with Wordsworth’ work:

For myself, I can only say that a knowledge of the springs which released a poem is not necessarily a help towards understanding the poem: too much information about the origins of the poem may even break my contact with it.[3]

This is an example where understanding has been pursued, and attention has drifted from the poem to the poem’s life setting. This, in Eliot’s view, has a negative impact on enjoying the poem as a poem. This point seems to be echoed all too often in the twentieth century project of Form Criticism as applied to the Psalms. The endless identification of competing hypothetical Sitz im Leben tends to undermine a psalm’s, i.e. a poem’s, power as poetry rather than illuminating it.

Elsewhere in his essay, Eliot points to other ways in which understanding can eclipse enjoyment. One of these is the dissection of a text by examining its sources, so he argues that:

The explanation of poetry by examination of the process of its sources is not the method of all contemporary criticism by any means; but it is a method which responds to the desire of a good many readers that poetry should be explained to them in terms of something else.[4]

This point also resonates with another problem with Form Criticism. Eliot discusses a book of literary criticism which examines some well-known major poems, where the poems were analysed line by line with no reference to the author or their other work. He captures the negative impact this has on enjoying the poems:

For nearly all the poems in the volume were poems that I had known and loved for many years; and after reading the analyses, I found I was slow to recover my previous feeling about the poems. It was as if someone had taken a machine to pieces and it left me with the task of reassembling the parts. I suspect, in fact, that a good deal of the value of an interpretation is—that it should be my own interpretation.[5]

The point that we need to create our own interpretation is a vital one when it comes to the Psalms and indeed all Scripture. Scripture cannot be fed upon second hand—any more than poetry. However good they might be, a sermon, a blog or a commentary can only ever lead us to Scripture. If we only hear the three points, or the propositional truths of the passage, or tense and grammar, we have not experienced, or as Eliot would put it, enjoyed Scripture.

Elsewhere in his essay Eliot warns us of the potential danger of all types of critical reading:

For the tendency is so general, to believe that we understand a poem when we have identified its origins and traced the process to which the poet submitted his materials, that we may easily believe the converse—that any explanation of the poem is also an account of how it was written.[6]

Such an exploration of cause and effect is an inevitable part of understanding a poem, but only a part of the process. There is a real danger that the aspect of enjoyment which gives a poem its vitality is either forgotten or undermined. There is a danger that the attempt at understanding a poem can do violence to what a poem actually is. When the poems are the biblical Psalms what they are is poems, with all that normally means, and they also have a potential to transform. Enjoyment of the Psalms means seeing them poetically – marvelling at the language and metaphor, awakening to what they reveal and conceal about God, meditating on what they reveal about us. It also means being open to their work as Scripture which is entirely coherent and cogent with their poetic nature.

We conclude with some words of Eliot which encourage us about the vital connection we can have with the Psalms:

What matters is the experience which is the same for all human beings of different centuries and languages capable of enjoying poetry, the spark which can leap across 2,500 years.[7]

[1] T. S. Eliot, ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’, a 1956 lecture pp.111-31 in T. S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets, New York: Farrars, Straus and Giroux (1957).
[2] Passim, p.128.
[3] Passim p. 124.
[4] Passim, p.125.
[5] Passim, p.127.
[6] Passim, p.126.
[7] Passim, p.131.

Musing About ‘The Road Goes Ever On’

In both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien presents a song, The Road Goes Ever On, which is said to have been written by Bilbo Baggins. It occurs once in The Hobbit and three times in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was an active churchgoing Roman Catholic and I suspect that there is something of the journey of faith lying behind this song. I have known the song since I was around eleven years old, firstly from reading Tolkien’s work and shortly after from hearing the song in the BBC’s 1981 adaption of The Lord of Rings. From that time onwards, I have found the words to be haunting and almost indefinably poignant; they seem to hint at something transcendent, mysterious and rather important. This is despite the simplicity of their literal claims. There is of course a very serious possibility that I am reading my own perspective into them. I have found this song helpful in reflecting on the Psalms and the Life of Faith.

Here is the first version of the The Road Goes Ever On, from The Lord of the Rings. It is sung by Bilbo as he leaves the Shire, right at the outset of the book. He is in an emotional state of new orientation, motivated by the potential for adventure:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

You, as reader, must make an initial judgement about how poignant, sentimental, or otherwise, you find this song. Interestingly the second time this song appears, this time uttered by Frodo who is setting out to dispose of the ring of power, one word is changed. Frodo’s reluctance, and I suspect disorientation, means he substitutes ‘eager feet’ for ‘weary feet’.

The third rendition of the song is spoken once again by Bilbo, as he is about to leave Middle-Earth. This final version has eschatological overtones as Bilbo anticipates the end of his days:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

The eschatological dynamic is made more concrete by the fact that Bilbo is joining the last of the elves to travel across the sea to Tol Eressëa. For Tolkien the lonely isle was ripe with heavenly blissful overtones. We have already encountered the idea that the Psalms essentially are companions on a journey, what we have termed the life of faith. Those familiar with the Psalms and/or this blog will know that the Psalter is a journey; it has a structure that tells a story. This connection, perhaps somewhat tenuous, is a reminder that the Psalms are themselves poetry and other poetry can help us imbibe them; they are meant to be nourishing.

To conclude here is my adaption of The Road Goes Ever On:

The Psalter cycles on and on
From the Hebrew Scriptures where it began.
The Life of Faith ahead extends,
And I must follow as best I can.
Pursuing it with eager feet,
I journey with my God, Yahweh.
Many challenges and trials I will meet,
But I am accompanied along the Way.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 8

The Necessity of Diversity within the Canon
Perhaps the strongest argument against the legitimacy of some inner canons used in a strong normative sense is that this does violence to a key aspect of the Bible. Though it is a truism of much modern biblical scholarship that dogmatic theology has no place in setting its agenda, some who challenge this creatively see a necessary diversity within the Bible, for example:

  1. Brueggemann argues that some parts of the Old Testament, particularly elements of the Psalms and Wisdom Literature, provide a countertestimony to the core testimony found within the bulk of the Old Testament narrative.[1] This is a constructive analysis of otherwise contradictory voices in the Old Testament.
  2. Wall urges a mutual criticism of texts rather than a bland mediated position between competing voices.[2]
  3. Watson identifies what he terms ‘conflict of interpretation’ in Paul and this is fruitful.[3]

Such approaches recognise implicitly the danger of capitulating to an inner canon and are a recognition of the text on its own terms. This prevents illegitimate skewing of texts or the marginalisation of uncomfortable texts contra Luther’s analogia scripturae.

Our exploration of the notion of a canon-within-the-canon has highlighted that the notion is not a singular one, but rather a family of notions. The diversity of both form and function implied by different scholars makes the term ultimately unfruitful. The value in the idea of an inner canon is how it points to a yet more fundamental issue, that of the presuppositions of the interpreter. Despite the long standing recognition of the role of presuppositions many controversial issues need to be considered and special attention paid to presuppositions. In such debates the use of the term inner canon is all too often just an unhelpfully veiled denial of another’s presuppositions.

Throughout this essay the author’s presupposition of the necessity of faith in interpretation will have been obvious. Such a stance is, I would suggest, a vital one and yet prone to misuse. For, as an ‘unthinking’ presupposition it can simply lead to a Biblicism which does violence to the Bible. Abraham judges that the Church has, for fifteen centuries, been in a downward spiral in seeing the Bible as epistemic norm rather than as a means of grace.[4] He arguably goes too far in counteracting a correctly diagnosed problem, but his message is a useful reminder that the canon is not just about acting as a rule. When we are open to the canon as both rule and means of grace then we are open to the diversity of its message. We need to have a hermeneutic of trust in recognising the canon as Holy Scripture and a hermeneutic of suspicion to all theologies that systematise its voice, especially those that employ an inner canon that is dictated by our own agendas.

Dunn’s identification of Jesus Christ as a canon-through-the canon seems to offer a fruitful theological insight.[5] The gracious gift of Christ from the Father implies a necessarily implicit trust in Scripture. At the same time there remains a suspicion that we cannot master the self-revelation of God himself. Might it not be the case that a presupposition of faith be the way to ensure that the Bible is not left broken by the interpretative process?

[1] See Brueggemann, Old Testament, pp.317-332.
[2] Wall, Scripture, p.539.
[3] Watson, Paul, pp.24-29.
[4] Abraham, Canon, p.1.
[5] Dunn, Canon, p.572.

Full Bibliography
Abraham, William J., Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Barr, James, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.
Barr, James, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament perspective, London: SCM press, 1999.
Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, I/1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translator: G. W. Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975 [original 1932].
Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, I/2: The Doctrine of the Word of God, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translators: G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1970 [original 1939].
Bosch, David J., Transforming Mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991.
Brueggemann, Walter, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Bultmann, Rudolph, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, pp.289-315 in Existence and Faith: Shorter writings of Rudolph Bultmann, translator: S. M. Ogden, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960.
Burnett, Richard E., Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The hermeneutical principles of the Römerbrief period, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
Childs, Brevard S., Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, London: SCM Press, 1979.

Childs, Brevard S., The New Testament as Canon: An introduction, London: SCM Press, 1984.
Childs, Brevard S., Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological reflection on the Christian Bible, London: SCM Press, 1992.
Childs, Brevard S., Biblical Theology: A proposal, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Dunn, James D. G., Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An inquiry into the character of earliest Christianity, second edition, London: SCM Press, 1990.
Dunn, James D. G., ‘Has the Canon a Continuing Function’, pp.558-579 in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, Peabody, Hendrickson: 2002.
Funk, Robert W., ‘The Once and Future New Testament’, pp.541-557 in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, Peabody, Hendrickson: 2002.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, second revised edition, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, London: Continuum, 2004.
Goldingay, John, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Goldingay, John, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Jeremias, Joachim, New Testament Theology, London: SCM Press, 1971.
Koyama, Kosuke, Water Buffalo Theology, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary edition, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1999 [original 1974].
Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, third edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 [first edition 1962].
Metzger, Bruce M., The Canon of the New Testament: Its origin, development, and significance, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Ng, Esther Yue L., Reconstructing Christian Origins? The Feminist Theology of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza: An evaluation, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002.
Sanders, E. P., Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A comparison of patterns of religion, London: SCM Press, 1977.
Schüssler Fiorenzia, Elisabeth, In Memory of Her: Feminist theological reconstruction of Christian origins, second edition, London: SCM Press, 1996 [original first edition 1984].
Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Is There a Meaning in this Text?: The Bible, the reader and the morality of literary knowledge, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J., The Drama of Doctrine: A canonical-linguistic approach to Christian theology, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Wall, Robert W., ‘The Significance of a Canonical Perspective of the Church’s Scripture’, pp.528-540 in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, Peabody, Hendrickson: 2002.
Watson, Francis, Text, Church and World: Biblical interpretation in theological perspective, London: T&T Clark, 1994.
Watson, Francis, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, London: T&T Clark, 2004.
Wright, D. F., ‘Creed, Confessional Forms’, pp.255-260 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (editors), Downers Grove: IVP, 1997.
Wright, N. T., The New Testament and the People of God, London: SPCK, 1992.
Wright, N. T., Jesus and the Victory of God, London: SPCK, 1996.
Wright, N. T., Paul: Fresh perspectives, London: SPCK, 2005.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 7

The Inevitability of Presuppositions
From the outset of these posts, it has been noted that the terms canon-within-the-canon and inner canon carry a large variety of meanings. Because of the high probability of misunderstanding in the short hand use of these terms it is suggested that neither is a very useful term. Rather more helpfully, all the multiplicity of issues can be sensibly subsumed into the bigger question of presuppositions in biblical interpretation. Whilst the idea of presuppositions is an even bigger issue than that of an inner canon, it is suggested that this plurality of meaning is more generally recognised by those who use this term.

There is an additional reason for being cautious about the concept of an inner canon. Some use the term in a much more serious sense than others, to the point where the canon is itself being questioned. If the term inner canon has a continued function it should perhaps be reserved for those who wish to organise a theological framework by giving knowing priority to a book, text or principle. Even this usage might well be questioned simply on semantic grounds as the very notion of an inner canon questions the very essence of what is meant by the canon.[1] More useful, because it is both semantically coherent and illustrative of a real interpretative choice, is the term a stepped canon which Barr uses in the light of the role of the Pentateuch in the Old Testament.[2]

In an earlier post, we argued that historical criticism can give rise to the operation of an inner canon. At a more fundamental level however modern criticism itself becomes a canon against which the Bible itself is measured.[3] This brings us to Bultmann’s question: Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible? Vanhoozer points out that the wide contemporary consensus, which follows Bultmann’s negative answer, is about the only point of current agreement in modern hermeneutics.[4] Of course such an insight was hardly novel, for example, Barth cites Ritschl as formulating such a view.[5]

The Positive use of PresuppositionsPresuppositions tend to lead to an identification of a particular form or identity of text which meets the requirements of the set agenda. So, for example:

  1. The use of Romans and justification by faith to counter a church context in which grace had been cheapened by a works righteousness which justified indulgences.
  2. The adoption by some Feminist interpreters of an inner canon of texts like Ruth or Galatians 3:28.
  3. The selection of texts in which Jesus’ ethical teaching is prevalent as an inner canon in the heyday of the Enlightenment’s impact on the academy.

It is suggested that honesty and awareness of presuppositions does not exclude the use of what might be termed an inner canon but rather makes this an open decision. Additionally, it makes possible a more thoughtful decision as to the nature and function of an inner canon. For, if inner canons are inevitable then their value, or otherwise, needs to account for both their form/identity and function.

In what sense can we hope to be informed, let alone transformed by a text, if it is such a subjective process? In the last twenty years or so a methodology known as critical realism has emerged which, it is suggested, provides a sensible way forward. Critical realism represents a middle ground between what might be termed naïve or positivistic readings on the one hand and sceptical and suspicious readings on the other.

Critical realism is honest about the fact that the interpreter has presuppositions and that these are an inevitable part of the starting point of any interpretive process. The idea is that the interpretive process does enable challenges to be made to presuppositions by the interpretive processes’ engagement with the text. Such a dynamic allows, for not only the information dynamic of the interpretive process, but a transformative role as well. This fits well with the testimony of Church History to the Bible’s transforming as well as informing role within the Church.  Such a dynamic prevents an unhelpful focus on the Bible’s epistemic value at the expense of its gift as a means of grace.  The next post will complete our look at this topic.

[1] Barr, Holy Scripture, pp.72-73 makes just this point.
[2] Barr, Holy Scripture, p.72.
[3] So Brueggemann, Old Testament, p.17 who sees Barth’s “epistemological manoeuvre” as arising from this concern.
[4] Vanhoozer, Doctrine, p.157.
[5] Barth, CD I.2 p.727.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 6

The Quest for Understanding the Bible on its Own Terms
There is not space herein to begin to explore what Childs famously termed a crisis in Biblical Theology. Childs’ reasons for arguing that such a crisis existed, and the fallout of his claim, are widely documented elsewhere.[1] The ‘crisis’ that Childs responds to is not entirely dissimilar to the problem that Barth challenged post-1915. Both Barth and Childs defend using the Bible as Holy Scripture as part of their respective hermeneutical programmes. In this sense Childs sees himself as following Barth.[2] Whatever else we might make of Barth’s doctrine of Revelation and scripture (see the six earlier posts on Barth), his focus on the sache (subject matter)[3] of the Bible seems eminently sensible.

More recently, Dunn has argued that on the basis of the diversity of the New Testament writings, that a unifying inner canon is necessary.[4] He argues persuasively that there is no need for some arbitrary choice and therefore a plurality of rival legitimate inner canons. Rather the key unifying narrative of the New Testament is ‘Jesus-the-man-now-exalted.’[5] Later he expresses this differently in arguing that the Christ Event is the inner canon[6] and in fact we might change perspective and see Jesus as the canon through the canon[7]. In this sense we have essentially a unity which comes from faith; the thing that galvanises the New Testament together is recognition of a coherence based in the self-revelation of God in Christ. This is precisely the substance of Barth’s theological breakthrough – the Bible has a sache, one and the same Jesus Christ which Dunn argues for, the same Jesus Christ who was the unquestioned pre-critical centre of the Bible. As Barth recognised, it was the Enlightenment that had deluded interpreters to stand on a different rock to view the Bible.

What Dunn and Barth essentially suggest is close to the so-called Rule of Faith. Despite protestations from the Reformers, the necessity of an interpretive lens through which to focus the diversity of Scripture has a long pedigree from Irenaeus onward. [8] The Rule of Faith was often referred to as ‘the rule’, i.e. Greek kanōn.[9] In this sense the Rule of Faith has been recognised as an inner canon for much of church history. It is an inner canon because the Rule of Faith contains nothing which is not to be found in Scripture. In this connection it is notable that ‘the rule’ was not fixed. It might be argued that it is not so much about specific information, though it always has this guise, but rather it’s about a stance of faith. A faith in what Jesus Christ as Son of God accomplished. Though later creeds were to play a similar role to ‘the rule’, the necessity of fixing their wording perhaps unhelpfully casts them as what Abraham calls an epistemic norm.[10] Perhaps their essential stance of faith given their point of departure as credo, i.e. “I believe”, is too easily masked by the detail.

Thus through these diverse voices of Irenaeus, Barth and Dunn, amongst others, we have some justification for seeing the necessity of a stance of faith in the core elements of the Christ Event as a legitimate inner canon. Our next post will develop this further as we examine the inevitability of presuppositions.

[1] See, for example, the succinct summary Childs, Biblical Theology, passim and the wider context in Brueggemann, Old Testament, pp.42-49.
[2] However, see Barr, Biblical Theology, pp.408-412 and his criticism of Childs’ interpretation of Barth.
[3] See Burnett, Exegesis, pp.74-78 for the subtle nuance of meaning intended by Barth.
[4] Dunn, New Testament, pp.374-376.
[5] Dunn, New Testament, p.376.
[6] Dunn, Canon, p.562.
[7] Dunn, Canon, p.572.
[8] See Abraham, Canon, pp.151ff.
[9] See, for example, Wright, Creed, p.258.
[10] Abraham, Canon, for example, see p.1.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 5

History, Praxis and Paradigm Shifts
Dunn comments ‘that all Christians have operated with a canon within the canon’.[1] This idea is not controversial today in the light paradigm theory (see below) and it is to be expected that if the Bible is a means of grace it will function within the context of the Church’s diverse needs through the ages. For the individual and for local congregations there is a similar and perhaps more obvious inevitability about having an inner canon in that both are finite contingent entities.[2] It should be noted that in this sense such inner canons have a very limited normative authority outside these contexts.

Paradigm shifts illustrate the argument made from praxis above, but on a macroscale. At the same time the inner canon tends to assume a stronger normative function. The application of the paradigm theory of Kuhn, which was posited to explain the development observed in the physical sciences to subjects like theology is not without controversy. However, Bosch has argued in a compelling way, building on Kung’s epochs of Church History, that the Church has tended to adopt a paradigm of mission, based essentially on a single model supported by an individual text. Each text and the associated paradigm is a subset of larger biblical missiology but encapsulates the needs, or nature, of the time, for example:

  1. The text that exemplifies the missionary paradigm of the Eastern Church is John 3:16 emphasising the centrality of Incarnation, the love of God and the goal of mission as life in Orthodoxy.[3]
  2. The text for the medieval Roman Catholic paradigm is Luke 14:23 which fits the emphasis on there being no salvation outside the Church.[4]
  3. Matthew 28:18-20 has become the key mission text in Protestant churches post William Carey.[5]

In short, for our purposes, we can note that there is a strong case to be made that despite the broad nature of mission presented in the Bible, for a range of complex historically contingent reasons, it has often been the case that a single text has been the inner canon of the Church’s mission. The point might well be made that this identification with a single biblical motif is simply eisegesis in the sense that the context of the Church largely dictates the nature of mission read from scripture.[6] Indeed Bosch’s thesis is that the consequences of both postmodernism and world-wide Christianity are a context in which, perhaps for the first time, the Church might recover a sense of biblical mission that is broad and holistic.[7]

Much of our discussion thus far points to the inevitability of operating with an inner canon. The next post is an appropriate point to assess the desirability of an inner interpretive canon.

[1] Dunn, Canon, p.559.
[2] For example: (i) when I became a Christian (1986) all I held a crude doctrine of justification by faith which was made effective by the penal substitutionary atonement of the Son of God. This provided a lens through which I read the Bible. Whilst I would still hold to this lens, other texts that seem to say something complementary, or even contradictory, now mean something else to me as this inner canon has evolved, (ii) my local church has been, we feel, lead in diverse ways to Deuteronomy 10:18-19 as a necessary exhortation to mission.
[3] See Bosch, Mission, pp.208-209.
[4] Bosch, Mission, p.236.
[5] Bosch, Mission, pp.340-341.
[6] In Bosch’s work it is unclear whether the text is an inner canon or rather reflects a more complex web of historical contingency.
[7] Bosch, Mission, pp.511-519 and passim.