Tuesday, March 10, 2009

According to the Scriptures

I recently reread C. H. Dodd's According to the Scriptures: The Substructure of New Testament Theology. The book, a 1952 version of lectures that Dodd delivered at the Princeton Theological Seminary, is Dodd's classic examination of the idea of "fulfillment" in early Christian thought. Specifically, Dodd sought to understand the use that Christians made of the Old Testament scriptures in asserting that--as the Lucan/Pauline writings state--a) the Messiah had to suffer, b) would rise on the third day, and c) that in His name repentance leading to forgiveness of sins would be preached to all nations (Luke 24: 46-47).

Without attempting to summarize the entire range of Dodd's insights, I will simply state that Dodd's analysis leads him to conclude that the early kerygma (preaching) of the Church can be traced back to its earliest days. In point of fact, there is no good reason to doubt that it is rooted in the teaching of Jesus to his disciples. Dodd offers four main conclusions to his study, which delimit the substructure of New Testament theology:

1. The quotation of passages from the Old Testament ... is not to be accounted for by the the postulate of a primitive anthology of isolated proof-texts.

2. The method included, first, the selection of certain large sections of the Old Testament scriptures, especially from Isaiah, Jeremiah and certain minor prophets, and from the Psalms. These sections were understood as wholes, and particular verses or sentences were quoted from them rather as pointers to the whole context ... it is the total context that is in view, and is the basis of the argument.

3. The relevant scriptures were understood and interpreted upon intelligible and consistent principles ... as fixing the meaning of those [gospel] facts.

4. This whole body of material ... is common to all the main portions of the New Testament. ...  It is the substructure of all Christian theology and contains already its chief regulative ideas (126-127).
So far so good. Dodd is at pains to stress that the New Testament writers did not use the Old Testament "as a kind of pious fortune-telling, and seek to impress their readers with the exactness of correspondence between forecast and event." Rather, says Dodd, the New Testament writers "interpret and apply the prophecies of the Old Testament upon the basis of a certain understanding of history" which the New Testament writers "conceive to have been brought into full light in the events of the gospel story ..." (128) The fundamental assumption of these writers, which they shared with the Old Testament writers, was that history was "the field upon which the living God perpetually confronts man with a challenge." The meaning of history "would emerge fully only in an event in which absolute judgment and absolute redemption should become actual among men" (129).  The scandal of the Church's apostolic preaching was that this absolute power and redemption had taken place--in the life, scandalous death, and resurrection of Jesus. It was this conviction of the early Church that led its members to seek in the Old Testament what would shed light on these historical events that had just occurred in Galilee and Judea.

What is Dodd getting at in this? His point is that the New Testament writers approached their work of theologizing not with a theory constructed from reading the Old Testament books but rather based on convictions derived from historical events:
In general, then, the writers of the New Testament, in making use of passages from the Old Testament, remain true to the main intention of their writers. Yet the actual meaning discovered in a given passage will seldom, in the nature of things, coincide precisely with that which it had in its original context. The transposition into a fresh situation involves a certain shift, nearly always an expansion, of the original scope of the passage. There are prophecies interpreted "messianically" in the New Testament where it is a matter of dispute whether or not the Old Testament writer had any intention to foretell the coming of a person bearing the character and functions which came to be designated by the term "Messiah," or indeed had in mind any personage of the future at all (130).
In other words, to use somewhat more current terms, the New Testament writers were true to the overall "narrative" of the Old Testament, were true to to the "certain understanding of history" that underlies much of the Old Testament, but they were not intent on finding strict "predictions" of specific events. Rather they were seeking understanding of events that they had experienced, using the most authoritative writings that they possessed. Indeed, Dodd suggests that in this they were following the example of Jesus himself:
That He formally set before them a comprehensive scheme of biblical interpretation after the manner of Luke 24:25-27, 44-45, we may well hesitate to believe; but I can see no reasonable ground for rejecting the statements of the Gospels that (for example) He pointed to Psalm 110 as a better guide to the truth about his mission and destiny than the popular beliefs about the Son of David, or that He made the connection of the Lord at God's right hand with the Son of Man in Daniel which proved so momentous for Christian thought; or that He associated with the Son of Man language which had been used of the Servant of the Lord [in Deutero-Isaiah], and employed it to hint at the meaning, and at the issue, of His own approaching death (110).
It's no surprise that Dodd focuses on Luke 24. We've seen that both Old and New Testament authors share an "understanding of history," a narrative or story. That understanding or narrative is that God will act in history in "an event in which absolute judgment and absolute redemption should become actual among men." Now, the disciples embody the Old Testament understanding of that story. When Jesus is resting on the Mount of Olives the disciples, still excited by Jesus' prophetic enactment of a "royal" entry to Jerusalem, come to ask him: "Tell us when these things will happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age" (Mt 24:3). As N. T. Wright notes in Jesus and the Victory of God, there is every reason to believe that the disciples are asking Jesus when he will be enthroned as king and expel the powers that are occupying the Holy City of Jerusalem--thus bringing to a close the present evil age of Israel's exile from fellowship with God and the beginning of Israel's vindication for all the nations to see (Wright, 346).

Luke 24 confirms this. The two disciples on their way to Emmaus dejectedly tell their acquaintance (Jesus) on the road, "We were hoping that he [Jesus] was the one who was coming to liberate Israel." As Louw and Nida note in their lexicon, the Greek word "liberate" implies the analogy of a slave being freed, with the implication of a liberation of Israel "from foreign control or ... from the power of Rome." Even after Jesus had "interpreted for them what was in all the Scriptures about himself" (Lk 24:27), just prior to his ascension, Luke presents the disciples as still asking Jesus, "Lord, is this when you'll restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6) This was the Old Testament vision, its understanding of history, its interpretation of the story of God: Israel would be God's regent on earth, ruling over the Gentiles from Mount Zion.

What Jesus did, however, and where early Christian thinkers followed, was to take this "substructure" narrative and turn it inside out. God would act--indeed, had already acted in Jesus--with "absolute judgment and absolute redemption." Christianity retained the outlines of this narrative, but "The symbolic world of first-century Judaism has been rethought from top to bottom, even while its underlying theology (monotheism, election, and eschatology) has been explicitly retained" (Wright, 218; the second half of that sentence needs serious qualification.). It is Dodd's basic thesis that it was this realization, a realization brought about by their experience of God acting in Jesus, that sent early Christian's back to the scriptures of the Old Testament, not in search of proof texts--the proof was abundantly present to them in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus--but rather for elucidation:
I have tried to show that when we abandon the mistaken idea that this treatment is essentially a mechanical process of bringing together isolated "proof-texts" and their supposed "fulfillments," and recognize that the governing intention is to exploit whole contexts selected as the varying expression of certain fundamental and permanent elements in the biblical revelation, we find genuine illumination upon theological questions of the first importance. There are places where the valuation of interpretations offered or presumed is a delicate problem. Each case is to be considered on its merits. In a broad way I would suggest that in any given case the question should be asked whether the meaning which the New Testament writer found in a passage of the Old Testament when he reflected on it in view of the gospel facts is an organic outgrowth or ripening of the original thought, or whether it amounts to no more than an arbitrary reading into a passage of a meaning essentially foreign to it. ... Without pursuing this problem further, I would submit that, while there is a fringe of questionable, arbitrary or even fanciful exegesis, the main line of interpretation of the Old Testament exemplified in the New is not only consistent and intelligent in itself, but also founded upon a genuinely historical understanding of the process of the religious--I should prefer to say prophetic--history of Israel as a whole.
My point is that this approach is not only fundamental to exegesis, it is also fundamental to a theory of revelation. Revelation must be understood not as a literary process primarily but as God acting in history, using Israel as the vehicle to prepare for His self-revelation in Jesus. This preparation involved importantly the development of the overall "understanding of history," a narrative that was brought to full realization in Jesus so that it's true meaning was finally revealed. In the wake of Vatican 2, the Church has emphasized the role of Scripture in the life of the faithful. The recent Synod (devoted to Scripture), as well as the documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission make clear that the Church is still struggling in its attempts to define the role of Scripture. My contention is that the place to start is to first enunciate a clear and consistent theory of revelation.

UPDATE: Revisiting this post, it seems now that Dodd--or, I suppose, I--got it absolutely right in this passage:

the New Testament writers ... were not intent on finding strict "predictions" of specific events. Rather they were seeking understanding of events that they had experienced, using the most authoritative writings that they possessed.

In other words, the early Christian writers of Gospels and letters were engaged in theology. Dodd himself recognizes as much when he writes:

That He [Jesus] formally set before them a comprehensive scheme of biblical interpretation after the manner of Luke 24:25-27, 44-45, we may well hesitate to believe;

That passage also suggests the line for going forward. If Jesus truly had "set before them a comprehensive scheme of biblical interpretation," I think we could count on it having been preserved. Instead, nowhere do we find Jesus--or the evangelists, for that matter--offering proof texts for the idea that the Messiah "had to suffer." Quite possibly Jesus told his disciples that he would have to suffer, but messianic suffering certainly doesn't appear to be a requirement drawn from the Israelite scriptures. If Luke 24 is not strictly historical, if it is perhaps Luke writing in the vein of ancient historiography and presenting an "appropriate" dialog or speech, the way forward may involve examining the gospels for a division between passages which appear to seek to preserve Jesus' own words as opposed to passages that contain the theologizing of the evangelists, their attempt to explain the "events that they had experienced, using the most authoritative writings that they possessed."

In point of fact, I am convinced that this approach is quite feasible.

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