Discussion of Christopher R. Seitz, The Character of Christian Scripture

[I wrote this for a doctoral seminar on Biblical Theology and Theological Hermeneutics. So, it’s technical . . .]

Broad Strokes

In The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible, Christopher Seitz takes up the work of his teacher, Brevard Childs, seeking to reform biblical theology in terms of its innate canonicity. Yet, the series in which the book is published—Studies in Theological Interpretation—implicitly identifies canonical interpretation with the biblical theology movement’s rebellious offspring, theological hermeneutics. Canon, for Seitz, is the common ground between biblical theology and theological hermeneutics. Thus, in the tradition of biblical theology, Seitz insists that theological interpretation must not silence the “discrete voice” of the OT, but, in a twist, this is a theological rather than a historical-critical argument. The claim that the character of Christian Scripture is its canonical form (its “formal aspect;” Kindle loc. 250) serves to pull OT theology toward theological interpretation while preserving, above all, the OT’s integrity apart from the witness of the NT and the authority of the church.

Seitz is also concerned about the hermeneutical crisis of the Anglican Communion. In addition to being the Senior Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, and a renowned OT scholar, Seitz holds three positions that stand to inform one’s reading of The Character of Christian Scripture. He is Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, President of The Anglican Communion Institute, and founder and executive director of The Cranmer Institute, which “seeks to rejuvenate Anglicanism in the US and throughout the Anglican Communion.”[1. The Cranmer Institute, “Vision,” http://www.cranmerinstitute.org/vision. The Anglican Communion Institute is housed within the Canmer Institute, and it is not evident how distinct the two initiatives are.] He writes, then, not merely with pastoral concern or love for the church but as an activist for unity and renewal within the Communion. Chapter six makes this evident, taking “the same-sex crisis in the American Episcopal Church” as a case study in the loss of canonical interpretation (Kindle loc. 2483). Despite the impression his style and interlocutors give, Seitz asks about the character of Christian Scripture not in the ivory tower of academic inquiry but in the mire of ecclesial dispute and decline. The hermeneutic to which the question corresponds is not objective but deeply interested. From this perspective, Seitz’s insistence on the “plain sense” of the final form and reliance on the liturgical inculcation of the rule of faith as “tacit knowledge” seem geared for the churchly purposes that motivate him.

In summary, an extension of Childs’s canonical interpretation preserves the discrete voice of the OT for an ecclesially interested theological hermeneutic. These broad strokes indicate the purpose and contours of the book’s argument. In what follows, I offer a more detailed review of the argument, then an assessment.

Review of the Argument

Seitz unrolls his thesis slowly and, in fact, never really articulates the full argument that the book undertakes. In chapter four, he states:

A simple thesis would appear to commend itself at this point: historical analysis of the use of the Old in the New threatens to create a disproportionate picture of what theological use of the OT by the Christian church should actually look like. And in so doing, it has also failed to reflect on what it means to speak of the NT as canon. (Kindle locs. 2127–32)

An earlier iteration of the same “thesis” appears in chapter two:

It will also emerge as our thesis that for the purpose of Christian theological reflection, the OT and the NT simply do their work differently, and not crudely developmentally, such as would lead one to conclude that the NT is more suitable for theological reflection than the OT in the very nature of the case. (Kindle locs. 1493–95)

Seitz takes the developmentalism of the historical analysis of Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum, represented chiefly by the popular work of Richard Hays, as the foe he must vanquish, and he insists on stating his thesis in terms of the need to vanquish this foe. This is such a critical issue because he perceives that developmentalism has gutted the canonicity of Anglican hermeneutics and, conversely, that the OT cannot speak into the Communion’s hermeneutical crisis unless developmentalism is decisively deposed:

At the heart of the problem is a model of approaching the Bible in which the two Testaments of Christian Scripture have been reduced to phases in the history-of-religion, one improving upon the other, and then finally, a new religious phase improving on them both and giving us a new word to guide our sexual lives under God. (Kindle locs. 2771–73)

This final “phase” is a direct descendent of the Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum approach, in which the church should, for example, imitate Paul’s OT interpretation. When Seitz takes up Childs’s claim that “we are not prophets or apostles,” it is not merely to assert that “it is not possible to adopt the pneumatological stance of Paul” (Kindle loc. 780) but, further, to rule out the logical conclusion of such a procedure: taking Paul’s example to legitimate a similar minimal selection of NT texts in the next phase of development. In other words, developmentalism tracks along the following route:

  1. The final form of the OT is reverse engineered into developmental phases in which later compositions and redactions are the reception of earlier ones. This sets theology in a history-of-religions mode, establishes a precedent for taking particular texts as developmentally relative, and prioritizes the historical reconstruction of “original” meaning.
  2. The NT is construed as another phrase of development, and the church identifies with the NT phase. The reception of the OT in the NT becomes authoritative, potentially restricting the “meaning” of the OT to the limits of its NT reception (either in scope or significance).
  3. In order to broaden the limits of the NT reception of the OT, historical-critical methods render the NT authors’ exegetical practices for replication with other OT texts.
  4. The historical-critical treatment of the NT renders it ultimately another developmental phase that must itself be selectively and critically received.
  5. The church ultimately identifies with the current developmental phase, construed in terms of the Spirit’s ongoing work. As always, it is necessary to progress beyond previous stages of understanding.

The “the present popularity of treatments of the use of the OT in the New” is what seems to put point #3 in Seitz’s crosshairs repetitively, almost redundantly, throughout the book (Kindle locs. 381–82) and to shape his articulation of the thesis.

Nonetheless, the critique of NT reception of the OT is only a premise of the the book’s actual argument. Seitz comes nearest expressing this in the introduction:

To speak of the OT as Christian Scripture requires a genuine interpretation of its literal sense according to its canonical form and character. This need never line up with this or that material use of the OT in the NT in the precise form that the NT demonstrates, much less in a form we are able to reconstruct and then imitate. (Kindle locs. 308–11; emphasis added).

Still, the second premise of the thesis is missing: the rule of faith is what ensures such genuine interpretation.

The point is that the rule of faith opened the Scriptures to a reading of extended senses, which were argued to be embedded in the literal sense of the OT in its given form and in its historical life, in order to clarify the most basic theological and trinitarian confession in the church’s lived life. (Kindle locs. 238–41; emphasis added).

The correlation of the two premises is at the heart of the book. The rule of faith is a hermeneutical rule for reading the literal (also called “plain”) sense of the OT as a discrete canonical witness; but it is, in this argument specifically, the corrective to the popularization of the Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum approach that presently perpetuates historical-critical developmentalism. Accordingly, the conclusion of the seventh chapter, dedicated to the role of the rule of faith, does not draw its conclusion without asserting the corrective:

In sum, the use of the rule of faith, with its assumptions about the character of the Scriptures that would in time become an older Testament, should serve a limiting function, guarding against an account of the two Testaments of Scripture that views them as one-after-the-other and not as mutually informing, mutually influencing witnesses, and turning the OT as Christian Scripture into a species of Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum. Rightly understood, the early appeal to the rule of faith is a guard against this precisely because the Scriptures of Israel make their Christian notes sound within the literal sense of their own stable deliverances and are seen to be decisive just for this reason. (Kindle locs. 2947–52; emphasis added)

For clarity, the thesis might therefore be restated thus: To speak of the OT as Christian Scripture requires a genuine interpretation of its literal sense according to its canonical form and character, which the popularity of Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum approach undermines but the rule of faith preserves.

In this light, the book’s argument runs fairly straightforwardly. (1) Brevard Childs was right about the canonical form and character of the OT. (2) The NT reception of the OT leaves much to be desired as a form of biblical theology. (3) The Book of Hebrews is a good example of the problems with attempting to imitate a NT author’s reception of the OT. (4) Classic, premodern Christian interpreters offer a better option for theological interpretation of the OT than Richard Hays’s and N. T. Wright’s historicist reductionism. (5) The final form of the OT text requires a better option anyway (read: Childs, like Luther and Calvin, also offers a better option). (6) The same-sex crisis in the Anglican Communion is the fruit of developmentalism. (7) But the rule of faith can guard against developmentalism and restore to the church interpretive instincts commensurate with the character of the two-testament canon.

Assessment

As my review suggests, the book lacks clarity in the articulation of its thesis and suffers from repetition and disorganization. Furthermore, Seitz’s prose is often tortuous, his turns of phrase muddled and his antecedents indiscernible. He oddly changes “tone” in chapter six, as though feeling the need to admit ecclesial concerns are not truly at home on the heights of canonical criticism. Happily, this results in a little more readability (causing one to wonder whether Seitz takes “tone” to refer to clarity). After the fashion of his teacher, the scope of Seitz’s argument is ambitious, to say the least, especially given the brevity of the volume. He engages the vast work of Childs and his recent detractors, the recent NT scholarship of Hays and company, the history of interpretation (particularly of the Reformers), the Book of Hebrews, a large selection of OT scholarship, contemporary Anglican hermeneutics, and the rule of faith. He is a jack of all trades and credibly a master of more than one, but those for whom he writes before the “tone” change are likely to find the argument broad and shallow.

Questions that Seitz might have addressed with deeper, more measured treatment therefore remain pressing. Regarding his chief concern, the portrayal of Hays’s work is disappointingly a caricature that devolves into assertions about “simply unilateral replication of this or that NT voice” (Kindle locs. 1627–28). Another core problem is his failure to define the “plain sense,” which is particularly important since it is only plain in light of the rule of faith. The plain sense seems to be that which refers to, variously, the “subject matter” and the “Sache” of Scripture, but this does not clarify the term. Instead, these terms coordinate with another vague notion: “theological pressure.” Following Childs, the final form of the OT exerts pressure as a discrete voice that refers to the same subject matter determined by the rule of faith, so that the literal or plain sense of the OT is “extended” canonically: “Yahweh is this Triune God and we know it from the first witness itself, when its literal sense yields this up in the light of the second witness (Kindle locs. 972–73). It never becomes evident how the definition of the word discrete can be reconciled with the phrase, “in the light of the second witness.” The dissonance is heightened by Seitz’s insistence that the rule of faith “arises on the basis of a stable, anterior witness (the OT)” (Kindle locs. 2899–2900). Without the “allied” (Kindle loc. 970) pressure that the rule of faith makes evident, the pressure of the OT’s discrete witness cannot be extended, yet that witness is so discrete that the rule of faith is based upon the OT already witnessing to God in Christ. In the end, there is a vicious circularity to Seitz’s argument. He hopes the rule of faith substantiates a theological case for the discrete voice of the OT’s plainly Christian sense, but this discreteness is undercut if that sense was not always already plain prior to the rule of faith.

My final critique regards the commitment to populism and perspicuity that undergirds Seitz’s argument. He states, “Appeal to Scripture’s plain sense is born of the conviction that the Bible can have something to say without other forces needing to regulate that or introduce a special hermeneutics from outside the text so we can know when and where it can speak” (Kindle locs. 2572–75). Concomitantly, “basic convictions about the way the Bible—and especially the OT—speaks of the Triune God are not sophisticated or theologically complicated ones” (Kindle locs. 2627–28). Instead, the “rhythms of worship” impart “tacit knowledge” of these basic convictions. (Kindle locs. 2629–31). In particular, “at the heart of the internal movement of a two-testament Scripture is a collateral conviction: that God is One, and unchanging. Or, to use the language of Prayer Book worship: ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.’ ” (Kindle locs. 2585–87). The liturgy imparts the assumption that validates the canonical reading: God does not change, therefore, God in Christ is Yahweh. The logic of Seitz’s overall construal seems to be that the OT witness is perspicuous, because rule of faith is perspicuous, because liturgy is perspicuous. Therefore, the claim that God does not change needs no textual substantiation and is subject to no textual challenge. For example, God becoming flesh cannot entail actual becoming, because that would require the subsequent witness to refer differently to a changed subject matter. Seitz contends the two testaments refer to the same subject matter, unnecessarily flattening the notion of sameness and establishing it as a presupposition. In this way, Seitz uses the appeal to populism and perspicuity to make a confessional claim the unassailable basis for the discrete witness of the OT to the triune God. This is an example of the sort of move that makes me sympathetic to biblical theologians who see theological commitments as a threat, not because neutrality is better or even possible but because a commitment is so easily established methodologically as a way to short-circuit the very texts that would challenge the commitment itself.

Questions

  1. What does it mean to say the OT has a discrete voice as Christian Scripture?
  2. What are the benefits and limitations of the historical analysis of NT reception of the OT? Is it inherently developmentalist? Why?
  3. What are the benefits and limitations of classic or premodern interpretive practices in comparison with the practices of, for example, Paul? Does the “closure” of the NT create an essential difference between them? Why? What are the necessary differences between premodern and postmodern practices?
  4. Do the apostles and prophets have a distinctive “pneumatological stance” that sets their interpretive practices apart from the rest of the church’s? Why?
  5. What role should the rule of faith play in theological hermeneutics? Does it substantiate the discreteness of the OT’s witness? Why?
  6. What is the “plain sense” of the OT and how does it speak in relation to Christian faith?
  7. Does the liturgy serve to impart “tacit knowledge” that makes the plain sense of Scripture available to the church without need of “special hermeneutics from outside”? How? Where do the liturgy and its “basic convictions” come from? Can the text challenge the “plain sense” of the liturgy or the rule of faith? How?
  8. How does the preservation of the discrete witness of the OT to God in Christ address hermeneutical concerns such as the “same-sex crisis”? What does it do for the interpretation of specific texts in tension with other texts and other commitments?

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