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.

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

In case these aren’t approved

I posted a number of comments at OB. We will see if the moderator approves them (they haven’t as of yet been approved).  I don’t know why I have been placed in that pending status.   That is a good thread simply because it shows the difference between a Reformed, covenantal, narratival ontology  on the one hand and a static Hellenic one on the other.

Just a thought:

I’ve never met anyone, Romanist or Protestant, who admits to short-changing the Incarnation. I was thinking about this the other day. The denouement of the biblical narrative is neither the Incarnation nor even the Cross, but the Resurrection (and possibly, the sessional reign or premillennial return). Therefore, to be faithful to the “flow” of biblical of the biblical narrative, emphasis should be on these other events.

Someone had correctly rebutted the neo-Socinians by saying that the shedding of blood was necessary, thus putting more emphasis on the cross.   The embarrassed replies and admissions to that comment were just hilarious.

This debate came up in Reformed Scholasticism as well. Some Reformed like Rutherford said that it could have been some other way. John Owen (correctly) pointed out the same thing you did. While I agree with Rutherford 98% of the time, I have to demur at this point.  Denying that blood was necessary can lead down the road to nominalism.

***my belief in total depravity and inherited guilt made me assume that Christ didn’t assume our totally depraved so called “sin nature”***

This sentence is a true summary of modern Reformed thought and publishing. Correcting it is part of my “project.” If you read the Protestant confessions and Charles Hodge, they specifically reject that gloss on depravity, but the modern Reformed world was interested in other things.

To the others,

The problem with “emphasis” arguments is just that: neither side is necessarily right or wrong. It’s similar to the claim that the East begins with the Persons and the West begins with the essence. Even if correct (and it is not) it doesn’t actually prove anything (since at the end of the day both sides agree).

Ironically, the fundamentalistic premillennialists might be closest to the truth: if the biblical narrative is dynamic and future-moving, then the denouement is in the future (the blessed return).

***I’m not qualified to articulate what are and are not differences in Orthodox vs. Calvinist anthropology***

Reformed anthropology follows Thomism, minus the donum superadditum.

The rest of what you wrote is rather unobjectionable from a Reformed standpoint.

***Not sure how Calvin’s theology of “total depravity” accounts for that.***

1) That’s not what total depravity means. It means our will follows our intellect and the latter is limited in its choice of the good.
2) God took Enoch and Elijah. There really isn’t anything more to the story than that. Surely you aren’t suggesting that they, in a Pelagian fashion, lived such a good life that God rewarded their works?

****As James cited from St. Gregory the Theologian, “what is not assumed in the Incarnation is not saved.”. This refutes the concept of total depravity since Christ was not depraved and thus man could not be saved if he were.****

No, it rebuts the idea, not refutes it. There is a difference. Both sides have a problem: if pressed to hard, the EO position comes close to Pelagianism and is hard-pressed to explain both the universality of sin and the fact that future generations act sinfully.

Crude reformed positions, such as are represented in pop culture, can lead towards Manichean views of human nature. However, the only person who ever held that position was Flavius Illyricus, the Lutheran, and he was condemned. Francis Turretin and Charles Hodge specifically denied that sin was essential to human nature.

***Even temptation is a sign of depravity according to that doctrine, so the temptation is often described as a temptation that is not akin to our own human temptation.***

That is more true of medieval Catholicism than it is of Reformation theology (I can’t help but note the absence of historic Reformed sources following these assertions). Medieval RCC had placed concupiscence before the Fall, ingraining it in human nature (which would make for an interesting discussion to see how Orthodoxy comes down on the question of donum superadditum).

***Calvin’s Total Depravity demands a totally corrupted human Nature able
ONLY to sin***

This is simply false. Calvin’s Institutes praise some of the pagan philosophers. Some of Calvin’s most lyrical lines are about common grace. CF Institutes II.3.3.

While it is true that Calvin does use words like depraved, one needs to take hyperbole into account, but even granting that one needs to ask, “Is so-and-so really saying that no one can do civic good?” If Calvin really believed that, then why did he praise Cicero and extol the common law of nations?

Saying the will is bent towards sin mainly means that humans cannot be the efficient cause in their own salvation. Full stop.

Preserving theological values

It was suggested that I was too subjective in theology and disagreed with everybody.  Obviously, such a claim is false.  I think I know why people say it, though.  I don’t walk lock-step with any one man.  God expects us to be big boys and big girls.   John said that we have an anointing from the Holy Spirit and don’t need to be overly dependent on teachers.  I had originally invited anchorites to point out my disagreements with the Confession. That invitation is still open.   In the following is a list of theological “values.”  Values are what are important to our identity as Christians standing in the Reformed catholic tradition.  They must be preserved.   That does not mean, however, that the philosophical presuppositions and currency of the 5th or 16th century are on the same level of Scripture.  Nor does this mean shying away from actual difficulties in a position.

Unfortunately, when anyone in a Reformed setting tries this, it often looks like he is attacking the Reformed faith.  I intend no such attack.  Whatever weaknesses I might perceive in the Reformed tradition, I don’t see any better alternatives. I write this as someone who is happily in the Reformed tradition, loves the best of the Reformed tradition, and will gladly defend that tradition from perceived defective views.  Now, on to the values…

  • Election:  My questions about election are different than most.  I fully affirm, contra all forms of semi-Pelagianism, that God doesn’t need our permission to be God.   I do believe God chooses who will be saved.  However, there are some problems the way it is usually set up.  If the identity of the Logos is fully-formed in eternal generation before the Pactum Salutis where the Father elects to save those into the Logos, then it’s hard to see how Nestorianism of some sort doesn’t follow.  Better yet, however, is to see Jesus of Nazareth as the subject and object of election, and election as the event that distinguished God’s modes of being (hyparchos tropos).  In any case, election must be affirmed as to allow the “offense of God’s actuality” (a phrase attributed to Robert W. Jenson).
  • Assurance: Assurance represents a problem.  How do I know that I am really assured?  The problem is not that I with my fallible human knowledge can know infallibly.  The real problem is that I exist in time yet God has promised that he will be God to me and that nothing can take me out of Jesus’s hands.   To attack assurance on these grounds is simply to preach a doctrine straight from hell.  That’s not to say that all tensions are gone, though.   But that’s the key issue:  tensions.  Instead of viewing assurance in a metaphysical construct where I find myself against a metaphysical doctrine of election to which I do not often hear a response, I suggest, following Michael Horton’s project, to see assurance in an eschatological context.  On a practical level, we can’t form our doctrine of assurance in such a way that ignores the most basic of Christian categories:  simple faith and trust.  Do you believe that Jesus did what he said he did?  Do you trust that he cut a covenant which we see in the bread and the wine?
  • Justification:  I fully agree with WSC 33.  Any deviation from that is fraught with huge problems.   This is where I part company with N.T. Wright.   Wright’s conclusions are bad.  His historical framework and questions are quite good, and quite frankly, won’t go away.  Further, and many critics of the Reformed faith don’t realize this, but Wright fully affirms the forensic, extra-nos aspect of justification against attempts to read it as theosis or transformation.
  • Sola Scriptura:  It’s fairly obvious that few know what this phrase really means, and that most certainly includes the Young, Restless, and Reformed crowd.  It does not mean “The Bible Alone.”  It does not mean the bible is our only authority.  It means that the Bible is the norm that norms our norms.  If you don’t know what that phrase means, you need to go read some more.  The Bible is the norm–let’s call it Holy Scripture, actually–that creates and legitimizes subordinate norms.  This not only means we may look to the Church and history, but that we must look.   It protects us from silly positions like “The Bible is way too subjective, but for some reason, dozens of canons from councils, dozens of statements from fathers in different cultural milieus, those are objective.”  As I tell people at Orthodox Bridge, I will gladly look to the church for advice and for theological grammar.  It simply doesn’t follow, however, that the church suddenly has ipso facto infallible authority in everything over my soul.

    On a more important note, and here is where my formulation is different, it is better to see Holy Scripture as the witness to God’s narrative:  God’s actions in (ultimately) raising the Israelite from the dead.  I prefer to see Holy Scripture in ultimately narratival terms as opposed to what I call “The Divine Database Model.”  The latter is too platonic and plays into the hands of traditionalists who can then start asking difficult questions about the canon.   My position, however, does an end-run around that by anchoring back into the Hebrew narrative, to which the New Testament documents witness, for the Hebrew canon was largely fixed prior to the existence of the Church (yes, I am aware of Stephen’s hinting of an OT church in Acts 7.  I don’t think it is warranted to read too much into that one phrase).

A narratival sola scriptura

Formally: The scriptures are a witness to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ (Karl Barth).
Materially: The scriptures narrate the story of Israel’s God who raised The Israelite from the dead (Robert W. Jenson) and ushered in the kingdom (Pannenberg and NT Wright).

Implications: At this point I am simply arguing based on the Hebrew scriptures alone. We can debate whether this OT canon was formally closed or not, but neither the Sanhedrin of Jesus’s time, nor Jesus himself, seemed too bothered about a “horizon-less” canon.

Corollary: By anchoring my view in the Hebrew Scripture (and seeing the NT documents as supplementary witnesses to the revelation of the Kingdom in Jesus of Nazareth, again Jenson), I am doing an end-run around the claim that I am accepting the documents of the church but rejecting the church. I think that claim is silly, but I will pretend it holds water for the moment.

If one doesn’t anchor sola scriptura in some form of “narratival epistemology” or “narratival ontology,” then its hard to see how it can stand against more tradition-based claims.