Notes on Ricoeur

I am not going to do a chapter by chapter analysis of Figuring the Sacred.  Not every chapter was equally good.   Some of his musings on Heidegger and Kant were interesting but not germane to narrative theology.

“Philosophy and Religious Language”

Understanding a text is always something more than the summation of partial meanings; the text as a whole has to be considered as a hierarchy of topics” (Ricoeur 38).

This makes me think of chiasms.  The structure of a chiasm reinforces meaning.  Meaning unfolds from narrative.

“Not just any theology whatsoever can be tied to narrative form, but only a theology that proclaims Yahweh to be the grand actor of a history of deliverance.  Without a doubt it is this point that forms the greatest contrast between the God of Israel and the God of Greek Philosophy” (40).

I’ve long expected the above paragraph to anger Anchorites.  I was surprised when it started angering Reformed folk.

Manifestation and Proclamation

This is the most important essay in the book and the one that causes much offense.   Ricoeur opposes a philosophy of manifestation (ontotheology) with a philosophy of proclamation (Yahweh speaks).

Manifestation

The “numinous” element of the sacred has nothing to do with language (49).  Another key element is theophany–not moments in the biblical narrative, but anything by which the sacred shows itself (icons, relics, holy places).   This means that reality is something other than itself while remaining itself.

There is a correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm (54).  This brings to mind the Luciferian “as above, so below” dictum.  In short, ontologies of manifestation always focus on “reality/grace/etc” emanating from the thing or the place.

Proclamation

There is a rupture–violent in the case of the prophets’ war against Baalism–between manifestation and proclamation.  The word outweighs the numinous (56).  Israel’s whole theology–and identity–was formed around discourses.

Per idols and icons:  “We may say that within the Hebraic domain they (hierophanies) withdraw to the extent that instruction through Torah overcomes any manifestation through an image.  A Theology of the Name is opposed to any hierophany of an idol…Hearing the word has taken the place of vision of signs” (56).  God’s pesel is the Ten Words. It is the only pesel he commanded.

Communal Readings

In “The ‘Sacred’ Text and the Community” Ricoeur gives a neat deconstruction of the concept “sacred,” especially when applied with a book.

For us, manifestation is not be necessity linked to language.  The word ‘sacred’ belongs to the side of manifestation, not to the side of proclamation, because many things may be sacred without being a text (71)

Ricoeur the Hermeneut

His reading of Genesis 1:1-2:4a is interesting, but more for the method than the conclusions. His essay on the Imagination is quite valuable in showing what “goes on” in a narrative.   Many narratives in the Bible, particularly Jesus’s parables, employ intertextuality which always forces an expansion of meaning from the text. In other words, it is “an object with surplus value” (152).  Assuming that the Holy Spirit didn’t write chaotically and randomly, isolated texts are now seen in a pattern and signify something else, something more (161).

Ricoeur then moves to a section on biblical time, which is useful for meditation.  He summarizes von Rad, Cullman, and others.  I won’t belabor the point.

His essay “Interpretive Narrative” offers his famous distinction between “idem” identity (the god of sameness, the god of Greek metaphysics) and ipse identity (the God who is constant to the Covenant).  He expands this motif in “Naming God.”  God’s identity is seen in his historic acts.

Conclusion

While magnificent, it is in many ways a difficult read.  He assumes a familiarity with Continental Philosophy (itself a daunting task) and even then some essays don’t seem to have a point.  But when he unloads on narrative he truly delivers.

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Narrative as hypostatic idiomata

Both in reading Paul Ricoeur’s Figuring the Sacred and in some discussions with fellow Reformed lay theologians, I am troubled by a possible future of Reformed trinitarianism:  we might become modalists.

That is not the point of this post, though.   One of the areas where I actually value Eastern Orthodox triadology is the insistent on maintaining the personal characteristics (idiomata) of the persons in the Trinity.  If we hold to too strong a doctrine of simplicity (idem simplicity) we run the risk of collapsing the personal distinctions in the Godhead to the bare essence.  I reject de Regnon’s thesis, but men fall prey to it regardless.

If we begin with an ontological essence of God and not the God revealed in the narrated life of Jesus of Nazareth, then we will posit a God who is not defined by Scripture at all.

Systematic Theology as anti-polytheistic tract

Reading Pannenberg’s laborious treatment of the natural theology and religio got me wondering, in response to something Pannenberg said:  modern treatments of religion treat the gods of different communities as if they are all the same.  But this will not work.  If two gods clash, who is mightier?  Liberal Protestantism simply said the gods were a projection of their worshipers.  This is probably true but it misses a larger point:  the identity of God and gods arises from a faith’s narrative (read canon, covenant document).

So I started thinking, what if systematic theology, when focusing on the doctrine of God, dealt more with a narratival thrust as an attack on polytheism rather than the author shadow-boxing dead German scholars?

The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative

Frei investigates the breakdown between story and reality, realistic and figural interpretation.  His Yale post-liberal presuppositions aid his analysing German liberalism.  They do not help him construct a coherent alternative.

A realistic interpretation is a strict correspondence between word and reality.  There can only be one meaning:  that of the author.  This is problematic when one approaches biblical prophecy: were the prophets’ intended meanings the same as that of the New Testament readers?  At this point the realistic paradigm breaks down.

A figural reading is close to Reformed typology:  the narrated sequence contains its own meaning (Frei 28).  While Frei doesn’t draw the explicit conclusion, if typology is true, then one must have a narratival epistemology.  One will note this is standard Protestant–especially Reformed covenantal–hermeneutics.  So what happened in history, especially in Germany?  The blossoming liberal schools quite correctly saw that if typology is true, then the bible has a coherent unity.  If the bible has a coherent unity, then it forces a narratival epistemology.  If that is true, then dualisms of a Platonic or Kantian sort are ruled out.

“What if Plato were a German Liberal?”

The development of hermeneutics didn’t take place in a vacuum.  Scholars were interacting with contemporary philosophical shfits.  The liberal schools would not accept a realistic hermeneutics because it was obvious (for them) that miracles and resurrection were not part of “reality.”  They could not accept a typological reading because typology is at war with internalized, spiritual pious gush.

Schleiermacher’s comments are appropriate at this point.  His denial of the Resurrection and the miraculous is well-known, but perhaps not his reasons why.  They are several:  if the truth of the story is in the event, then it stands or falls apart from my internalized spiritualization of the text.  Further, if the goal of Jesus (on the liberal gloss) is his coming-to-realization of God-conciousness, then the Resurrection makes such reading pointless.  Indeed, the cross is an anti-climax.

Lessons to be learned:  A Conclusion of sorts

It’s not clear if Frei himself avoids all of the criticisms of liberal theology.   His distinction between factuality and factuality-like probably won’t hold up under scrutiny (which is why few liberals adopted it).  His understanding of narrative theology is brilliant, but narrative theology only works if the narrative is…well..real. Did it actually happen?

If we do not have eschatology as the corresponding pole to history, as none of the liberals did, then it is hard to avoid Strauss’s criticisms.   If the goal of hermeneutics is eternal, timeless truths (ironically shared by both modern Evangelicals and Schleiermacher), then Lessing’s ditch is insurmountable.  If truth is Platonic and necessary and eternal, necessary because it is eternal, then why bother with historical contingencies like narratives?  If this is the case, Lessing is absolutely correct.

 

The God who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital

Wright, G. E.  The God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital

A very important work in 20th century biblical studies. Dissatisfied with the liberal gutting of the Faith, yet uncomfortable with actually affirming said Faith, Wright (not to be confused with NT Scholar NT Wright) and the Biblical Theology movement posited a God who makes himself known by his acts. We know God by what he does in the narrative.

On one level I agree. A narratival theology, indeed a narratival ontology, demands a God who acts. We know God by his saving work, not from our philosophizing about his essence (or if you are into hyperousia, the essence beyond the essence).

There is a problem with Wright’s proposal, though. As numerous neo-liberals have pointed out, Did God actually act in *this* space-time history? If Wright says no then how is he any different from old-school liberalism? If he says yes, how is he not a biblical conservative?

Even worse, by positing God’s acting in a different narrative than the real life narrative, we have a modalistic narrative behind the narrative, which is not so different from the hyper-ousia modalism of God behind God.  I’ve accused Eastern Orthodoxy’s essence/energy model as modalist.  It posits an Essence behind the Persons who are Behind the Energies which (no longer who?!) are behind the narrative.  One cannot miss the heavy irony:  EO vaunts itself on starting with the Persons of the Trinity (Or maybe the energies?) which gives it a dynamism that the West lacks.  In reality, though, by not identifying God with the God of Israel’s narrative–or rather, the identity of God is not connected to Israel’s narrative, but is rather an entity behind that narrative–the end result is the same.

Conclusion:

Actually an enjoyable book. I really benefited from it and it probably stands a few rereadings. Still, one must note the author’s presuppositions.

Torah, not theonomy

Of course, by Torah we mean after Christ, apart from works of Torah.   I am saying that seeing the “Law” as Torah and not theonomy provides a better model for understanding Scripture.  Theonomy runs into difficulties because it assumes the legal categories of late Western modernity.  That’s not necessarily its fault.   Everyone has to apply the word in the culture he lives in.  But a quick perusal of the Pentateuch will show that it was not written with late Western modernity in mind.  In fact, seen in our categories, much of it is quite bizarre.

That’s not to deny its importance.  If anything, the strange ways in which Torah is organized should invite the reader to reflect even deeper about reality and the way that God’s world works.  Let’s consider a few and ask how these can possibly work on the theonomic thesis:

  1. While there are covenantal-sequential patterns and typological motifs (riffing off of the days of creation–Ex. 25-40), many of the laws are apparently haphazardly organized together.  This should alert us to the fact that maybe God didn’t intend for these laws to be understood in a post-common law framework.
  2. If you find a bird’s nest on the ground, you are given certain commands on how you can gather the eggs. Is anyone in the modern Western world really going to do this?  Is this law judicial or moral or both?
  3. Torah is also story.  In Paul’s use of Abraham in Romans Torah is not functioning as a list of dos and don’ts, but as story.  How do you put story into a law code?

Narrative’s rewiring ontology

Second Corinthians 3
Paul makes a number of important parallels and contrasts (from Peter Leithart’s Deep Comedy, 23-24):

  • Old                                                                                                 New
  • Letter                                                                                            Spirit
  • Tablet of Stone                                                                            Tablet of human heart
  • Kills                                                                                               Gives Life
  • Ministry of condemnation                                                        ministry righteousness
  • Glory                                                                                            Surpassing Glory
  • Veil                                                                                                Veil Removed
  • Minds hardened                                                                          Minds softened
  • Slavery                                                                                         Liberty

Keeping in mind the Adam-Christ parallel from Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5, Paul is saying that from Adam to Christ “death reigned,” but with Christ life was, if you will, “pumped into the world.”  With the resurrection of Jesus eschatological life has entered the world.  Throughout the prophets the promise of the Spirit was always connected with a new humanity.

The gospel entered the world telling a new story about history.  For the pagan world, death was ultimate and tragic.   The gospel “re-wired” the laws of death and nature