Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kelsey on Choices that Govern the Deployment of Scripture in Theological Arguments

David Kelsey is here at PTS this week giving this year's Warfield lectures, so it seemed fitting to put up a quote from one of his earlier works.

David Kelsey, Providing Doctrine: The Uses of Scripture in Modern Theology, 169-70.
[T]heologians' decisions about which role in an argument supporting a theological proposal ought to be filled by scripture [ed. aside: Kelsey earlier gives a very complex analysis of how Scripture actually gets used in supporting theological arguments] is largely determined by a decision about how best to characterize the subject matter theological proposals are chiefly to elucidate. But that is to say that they are determined by the particular way each theological tries to catch up the full complexity and singularity of the mode in which God is present in a single imaginative judgment. Theologians' decisions about how to use scripture, like their decisions about how to construe the scripture they use, are determined by decisions that are literally pre-text, i.e., logically prior to any attention to any particular text taken as authority for any particular theological proposal.
Kelsey's analysis certainly gives one pause about too quickly claiming that one's own theological position is scripturally superior to another, given that the relationship between how Scripture is deployed in theology is so complicated. More work needs to be done, I think, in bringing together Kelsey's functional analysis and a more theoretical doctrine of Scripture and revelation.
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9 comments:

Nathaniel said...

In light of this quote, and what I have read from the theological anthropology, it makes me wonder what good it is to go to "narratives from the canon of Holy Scripture" to justify one's theological proposals/imagination. Say, for instance, if one side steps certain creation narratives in favor of others that are more palatable/conducive to one's theological perspective. Perhaps, from the book or your own thoughts, you could plot this out for me.

W. Travis McMaken said...

It seems to me, and I think Kelsey agrees, that insofar as one is a member of a Christian community, it is incumbent upon one to do your theological work with some sort of reference to Scripture. I think that what is helpful from Kelsey's book is bringing greater awareness to how this plays out in practice. More work needs to be done, as I mentioned, to bring together this sort of functional analysis with constructive work on the doctrines involved. All of which is to say, Kelsey doesn't seem to concerned about the messiness of the whole thing, but would rather get on with the work.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Travis. Kelsey describes his book as essentially a "descriptive study" into the question of how theologians take scripture to be "authoritative" for doing theology. Furthermore, I think Kelsey pushes the conversation beyond simple divisions,i.e., whether one takes scripture seriously or doesn't. It reminds me of what seems to be a somewhat radical hermeneutics Barth presents in CD 1.1. In his discussion on threefold form of the Word of God, Barth states,"The exegesis of the Bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible. Here as everywhere the defence against possible violence to the text must be left to the text itself, which in fact has always succeeded in doing something a purely spiritual and oral tradition cannot do, namely, maintaining its own life against the encroachments of individual or total periods and tendencies in the Church, victoriously asserting this life in ever new developments, and thus creating recognition for itself as a norm." Then, Barth provides the caveat: "After any exegesis propounded in it, even the very best, it has to realize afresh the distinction between text and commentary and to let the text speak again without hindrance..." In short, I agree, get on with the work and work humbly!

Joshua H.

C. Ehrlich said...

"Theologians' decisions about how to use scripture, like their decisions about how to construe the scripture they use, are determined by decisions that are literally pre-text"

How could it be otherwise?

I see two alternatives: either the scriptures themselves determine their own use, or theologians' decisions are not really determined by prior decisions at all, but rather by something like habit, tradition, or by some subterranean working of the mind. I'm skeptical of the first alternative.

Nathaniel Maddox said...

I like your quote Josh, but if I might push back with the Barth quote itself.

Barth doesn't seem to be suggesting that we should move away from certain narratives (such as the creation narratives of Genesis 1 as Kesley does) because they do not comport with the theological/ethical/philosphical vision that we inevitably bring to the text. Quite the opposite. My question has to do with whether or not we allow *all* scripture narratives to question our pre-text baggage, and I hold out that *all* scripture has the power to do so.

As the Kesley quote stands on its own, I have no problem with it. Of course all readers bring something to the text! But if we allow our pre-text assumptions to Lord over the text, we end up scrapping entire narratives that we do not like (as Kelsey does with Genesis creation narratives, keeping only the parts of Priestly revision that comport with his pre-text assumptions about what a good anthropology of creation might be). We listen only to what "fits" our pre-text, and scripture exegesis becomes wholly an anthropological exercise. Barth's understanding of scripture works well the quote from Kelsey *up to a point*. But, according to Barth, we aren't to just listen for what we want to Scripture. Nor is it the case that we already know before hand what we will get. We don't just find ourselves in the Bible.

Getting down to business is the right move. And we have to do so as the contingent creatures we are, for good or ill with a wealth of pre-text baggage. But this doesn't give us license to cherry pick narratives for our theological work based on our pre-text assumptions. To do so, for Barth, is to do "violence to the text."

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathaniel,

I think we seem to be in general agreement. It has been little while since I've read Kelsey's text, so I was definitely not trying to defend him with Barth. However, I think the potential risk for "Lording over the text" will always remain, which is why I made the comment about working with humility. I also share your concern about cherry-picking narratives, though I don't see how that can be avoided for the one who preaches on sunday morning or writes a thesis statement. At some point, you have to say "something" and that means excluding other possibilities. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Best,

Joshua H.

Nathaniel said...

Yes, Josh I agree with you that we must begin somewhere. A choice for one text is always a choice against another for the time being.

I was more or less after putting some distance between Kelsey's hermeneutics as I've seen them played out in Eccentric Existence and Barth's, though I think they have some commonalities as well.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Not hard to find that distance, Nathan. They have different ways of regarding X in connection with the rest of Scripture.

Matt Frost said...

@Nathaniel, I might suggest that the question is how coherent the narratives we construct using scripture are with the narratives of the whole, or with the faith of our community. I'm not inclined to follow Kelsey's dispatch of sections of Biblical narrative, mostly because as a theologian, it is my job to understand the narratives as theology. Genesis 1 (and 2) is a great text, as long as we remember that throughout scripture, creation is attributed to God by the faithful. These attributions take many forms, but none of them are evidentiary accounts of constitutive actions of God's being for us. Even the DtrH doesn't pass historical-critical muster as first-hand evidence of God's action. Nor do the gospels. But they tell us stories about God's being for us, about God's actions for us, and about our magnification of God's glory in the aftermath. They tell us story, and the question is what that story *does* as witness. I may not like the Pastorals, for example, but they function.