Thursday, May 30, 2013

Responding to Andrew Perriman's Rule #3: Biblical narrative is historically determined

The narrative-historical approach differs from purely narrative theologies (e.g. Frei) principally in that it emphasizes the historical groundedness and orientation of the story that is told about Israel and the early church. Scripture is not merely a “drama of doctrine” (Vanhoozer)—that is a very modern perspective. It is first and foremost an account of—and an attempt to make sense of—the historical experience of a community.

On the other hand, the narrative-historical approach differs from the historical-critical method in that it is interested primarily in the relationship between the text and the historical community which produced it, much less in the relationship between the text and a supposedly objective historical reality that might be constructed by other means. For example, we ask why the early Christian community told a story about Jesus calming a storm, what they understood by it, not whether the event is believable or actually happened. In this regard, the narrative-historical approach is closer to canonical or biblical criticism.
Perriman’s disagreement with Vanhoozer is not an argument, nor is it a disproof. It is a mere statement. This is like one child saying the Reds are the best team in baseball and the other one retorting that the Red Sox are the best team in baseball without putting up normative facts by which we measure a team’s talent. In addition, Perriman’s use of the adjective “merely” has the effect of polarizing Vanhoozer’s perspective. The problem is that Perriman does this without telling us why it should rightly be casted with that adjective in the first place.

Is God’s revelation really an attempt on God’s part to help us understand the historical experiences of ancient Israel? One is tempted to ask, “Why do I care?” If that is really what Scripture is, if that is the summation of it all, why do I care about what happened to the ancient community of Israel? What is that to me? Perriman seems obsessed with stopping at the community of Israel. Repeatedly he argues that Scripture revolves around Israel. Over and over he tells us that Scripture is given to help us understand the experience of Israel. But is this really the right subject of Scripture? Is Scripture concerned to teach us all about the experiences of the ancient tribe of Abraham? Did God give us the text so that we could travel back in time to experience what the tiny nation of Israel experienced?

It is one thing to say, as the grammatico-historical method does, that understanding the experience of that community is critical to our understanding of God, but it is quite another to say that this is that Scripture is “first and foremost an attempt to make sense out of an ancient community’s experience. Scripture is given to inform our faith. What faith seeks is not rich understanding of the experience of an ancient community. Faith seeks to understand her Author, finisher, and perfecto.

Perriman hammers away at theological interpretation as if it were possible to purge interpretation from theology altogether. I have pointed out that such a task is impossible. Surely Perriman can see that the very suggestion itself stems from a theological perspective. Doctrines are less propositional statements or static rules than they are life-shaping dramatic directions.” [Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine] Doctrine provides the melody to which we dance God’s dance in a life filled with both, light and darkness, joy and heartache, peace and upheaval, hope and despair.

Perriman admits that his method is close to the canonical method of Childs. This does seems to emerge in his views. However, part of the problem with Childs' canonical process is that he locates the canon, not is Scripture but in the interpretive community. The community reads the text from a community’s rule of faith. But this begs the question: whose rule of faith? As I have said repeatedly to Perriman, if we are going to follow the community’s rule of faith of some “canonical intent,” then whose do we follow? It is not as though the Jewish community had achieved perfect harmony in her understanding of Scripture. That Jesus and Paul’s interpretive method was radically different is plain for any reader to see.

That Childs' approach requires a great deal of theological perspective is clear. Yet, this is one thing that Perriman seeks desperately to dissolve. How he can claim to be so close to a method that is unapologetically theological in so many ways is confusing to say the least. As Vanhoozer rightly points out, “The gap between biblical studies and theology remains, however, for it is unclear what the human witness (canonical form) has to do with the divine disclosure (revelatory content). [Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine]

Contrary to Perriman’s hypothesis, Israel is not the primary subject of Scripture. Everywhere this tiny tribe or nation appears, YHWH appears. In other words, at a minimum, two characters are always present in the text: God and Israel or later, the Church. Moreover, God is present from Genesis one to Revelation twenty-two. In other words, YHWH is present when Israel is not. The center of Scripture is YHWH. He is the primary subject of Scripture. The text is about Him. Every character, including Israel, appears in the text to reveal something about YHWH. These characters are present but they all point upward to the God who is revealing and disclosing Himself to men that are anything but deserving of such a wonderful, magnificent, and often times, mysterious unveiling of His majesty! The Scripture gives us more reasons than we need to stand still and behold the wonders of the God who made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, the God who sent His unique and only begotten Son to redeem men from the curse of sin.

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