Monday, December 30, 2013

Wright - Exegesis is historical in nature 3

More on chapter 1 of N. T. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God in bits. Thus far,


Chapter 1
The Basics of Philemon
Philemon and Christian Worldview

iv. History, Exegesis, "Application"
Thus far in this section, Wright has been trying to create a framework within which to approach Paul's worldview. He has also tried to create a framework for connecting worldview with theology and culture. He continues his prolegomena in the next section by clarifying the nature of history, exegesis, and application of a text, three other tasks normally undertaken when Paul is studied.

His historical method is sound and he is quite insistent that the historical task cannot be ignored. "The normal charitable assumption is that the words were written by writers who were doing their best to say, more or less, what they meant" (53). "The historical task remains central and non-negotiable" (55).

Exegesis is the second task and "is a branch of history" (52). Wright wants to avoid reductionism, which in his view would isolate the task of interpretation from history, theology, or application. Application is the third task and has to do with connecting the meaning of the text with our context.

Wright reiterates his critical realist perspective. We avoid on the one side the naive realism that imagines we can see the text with a God's eye view and, on the other side, the narcissistic reductionism that thinks all perception is projection. "History is possible" (50), even though what we have is "a seemingly random selection of Paul's writings, in which each letter contains some striking material not found in any of the others." "Real advance in historical knowledge is possible" (53).

The proper method of historical investigation is to 1) account for the data, 2) do so with appropriate simplicity, and 3) shed light on areas outside the subject-matter of the inquiry (54).

Some of the final sentences of this section are worth quoting at length. Although the study of Paul must begin with the interpretation of his actual letters, "Only when we have understood Paul's worldview do we understand why his theology is what it is, and the role it plays precisely within that worldview. Only when we understand Paul's theology do we understand why he believed himself called to do what he did... Only then, in fact, do we really stand a chance of approaching the tasks of exegesis itself... with any deep overall understanding" (55).

It seems to me that Wright's general sense of things in this section is helpful. It is helpful more as individual insights than as a systematic scaffolding. Wright is, as it were, creating a grand recit next to any text--and that structure is vulnerable precisely because it is a systematic metanarrative. His individual claims are helpful and ring true, but he cannot resist creating an overarching system, quite possibly reflecting his early engagement with structuralism. At some points he seems vulnerable to the very characteristics he critiques in others.

A far more helpful (and simple) model for approaching texts is that of Paul Ricoeur, the "three worlds" of the text. The 1) world within the text is the text itself. It never exists as a text-in-itself, to be sure, because anyone who reads it already informs the words with meanings from another world.

The 2) world behind the text is all the things Wright is concerned with--history, culture, "worldview," "mindset," theology. These are the elements that informed the intended and assumed meanings of the text originally. Meanwhile, the 3) world in front of the text is my world as a reader, all the elements of "worldview," "mindset," theology, and so forth that I see in the text by drawing on my world, usually without realizing it.

Ricoeur's model is a heuristic model at best, because in reality it is all mixed together in ways we can never parse out entirely. Wright has no penchant to separate the meaning of a text from that which was originally intended. Certainly he recognizes the reality of polyvalence, but I strongly suspect he has no desire to treat non-original meanings to the text as true meanings.

Yet he is surely spot-on when it comes to critical realism over naive realism and "narcissistic projection." Exegesis is a worthy goal and historical investigation is to some extent possible. Whether it is non-negotiable we can debate, but it seems a quite worthy task. All truth is God's truth, and so all truth is inherently valuable and a blessing, whether we see the immediate benefit or not.

It is in the nature of Protestant and evangelical identity to be interested in the historical meaning of the text, even if this quest tends to deconstruct somewhat in its own pursuit. For mainline Protestants, it deconstructed into liberalism. For evangelicalism, it logically leads to polyvalence. Everything else is transitional, a hermeneutic not taken to its logical end.

Wright's historical method could perhaps be expressed better. Good historical investigation does indeed 1) draw on as much data as possible, 2) formulate hypotheses that account for as much of the data as possible with appropriate simplicity and elegance, and 3) continues to test such hypotheses against new data and over and against competing hypotheses. For a theist, possible explanations include not only the normal cause and effect hypotheses (cf. Troeltsch) but also the possibility of divine intervention.

In general, the role of the divine should be left in the category of the mysterious, unless there is good reason to suspect supernatural interruption. It is not reductionistic to suppose the normal workings of cause and effect when they seem to explain the data appropriately. At the same time, room must always be left for a divine element in the equation.

I find the final sentences from this section of Wright a bit troubling. I am consoled by his caveats that the texts themselves must be the ground for all discussion of Paul's meaning.  I would translate his statements into the need to know the deep assumptions behind Paul's words before we can fully understand them. I completely agree.

However, Wright still seems to have a hangover from his pre-chastened modernist days in his penchant to see worldviews and theologies as coherent systems. His early engagement with structuralism is probably revealing here. A worldview is more a collection or family of related perspectives and impulses than a grand recit or system. By building such a magnificent meta-scaffolding alongside Paul, Wright is setting himself up for skew at some point, in my opinion.


Susan Moore said...

Specifically, how does Wright account for the sudden change in Paul between being a Jesus-hater and condemner of Jesus-followers, to a Jesus-worshiper and lover of His followers?

Susan Moore said...

Or, even more specifically, how does Wright account for the sudden change in Paul's mindset between being one who killed others, to the mindset of one who supports his own murder so that those who he used to kill would benefit?
He is still following the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, but what can account for his change in theology? (It seems the answer to my three questions is strongly related to the blog you wrote right before this one).

Ken Schenck said...

We'll find out. :-)