Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Benedict on Wednesday

After a week off do to Ash Wednesday, we return to Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today

In order not to let the general rules of the method and their presuppositions remain altogether abstract, I would like to try to illustrate what I have been saying thus far with an example. I am going to follow here the doctoral dissertation written by Reiner Blank at the University of Basel, entitled “Analysis and Criticism of the Form-Critical Works of Martin Dibelius and Rudolph Bultmann.” This book seems to me to be a fine example of a self-critique of the historical-critical method. This kind of self-critical exegesis stops building conclusions on top of conclusions, and from constructing and opposing hypotheses. It looks for a way to identify its own foundations and to purify itself by reflections on those foundations. This does not mean that it is pulling itself up by its own bootstraps. On the contrary, by a process of self-limitation, it marks out for itself its own proper space. It goes without saying that the form-critical works of Dibelius and Bultmann have in the meantime been surpassed and in many respects corrected in their details. But it is likewise true that their basic methodological approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis. Their essential elements underlie more than their own historical and theological judgments and, to be sure, these have widely achieved an authority like unto dogma.

For Dibelius, as with Bultmann, it was a matter of overcoming the arbitrary manner in which the preceding phase of Christian exegesis, the so-called “Liberal Theology,” had been conducted. This was imbued with judgments about what was “historical” or “unhistorical.” Both these scholars then sought to establish strict literary criteria which would reliably clarify the process by which the texts themselves were developed and would thus provide a true picture of the tradition. With this outlook, both were in search of the pure form and of the rules which governed the development from the initial forms to the text as we have it before us today. As is well known, Dibelius proceeded from the view that the secret of history discloses itself as one sheds light on its development. But how does one arrive at this first premise and to the ground rules for further development? Even with all their particular differences, one can discover here a series of fundamental presuppositions common to both Dibelius and Bultmann and which both considered trustworthy beyond question. Both proceed from the priority of what is preached over the event in itself: in the beginning was the Word. Everything in the Bible develops from the proclamation. This thesis is so promoted by Bultmann that for him only the word can be original: the word generates the scene. All events, therefore, are already secondary, mythological developments. 

A further axiom is formulated which has remained fundamental for modern exegesis since the time of Dibelius and Bultmann: the notion of discontinuity. Not only is there no continuity between the pre-Easter Jesus and the formative period of the church; discontinuity applies to all phases of the tradition. This is so much the case that Reiner Blank could state, “Bultmann wanted incoherence at any price.” 

To these two theories, the pure originality of the simple word and the discontinuity between the particular phases of development, there is joined the further notion that what is simple is original, that what is more complex must be a later development. This idea affords an easily applied parameter to determine the stages of development: the more theologically considered and sophisticated a given text is, the more recent it is, and the simpler something is, the easier it is to reckon it original. The criterion according to which something is considered more or less developed, however, is not at all so evident as it first seems. In fact, the judgment essentially depends upon the theological values of the individual exegete. There remains considerable room for arbitrary choice. 

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