The Character of Christian Scripture

March 7, 2012 — 1 Comment

9780801039485[This review is part of the What Is Theological Interpretation? series]

In case you wondering, no, I didn’t spend the weekend feverishly reading so I could have so many book reviews this week. I’m trying to get caught up on all the stellar books I’ve been sent to review and have finished reading over the last month or so.

Once again today, thanks to Baker Academic sending along a review copy, I’ve got Christopher Seitz’s The Character of Christian Scripture. The print is probably too small in the cover to tell, but this book is part of the Studies in Theological Interpretation and the first I’ve finished to review. Though this book is in this particular series, Seitz is more interested in explaining the canonical approach to interpretation which is slightly different than a strict theological interpretation of Scripture approach.

Overview

Seitz owes much to Brevard Childs and chapter 1, which is almost 70 pages long, is essentially an exposition of Child’s thought as a means to differentiate the canonical approach and theological interpretation (28). This takes the form of alternately addressing criticisms and then making distinctions. It is a dense chapter, and to be honest, I felt like Seitz was hard to follow and seemed to pick the most jargon laden way possible to make his points. Some of that may owe to the fact that Seitz is brilliant, and the way he wrote in this chapter was similar to how I heard him address a group of us at Dallas Seminary regarding the Trinity in the Old Testament (which as a footnote in this book notes, is a forthcoming essay in a collection from Oxford University Press). At any rate, I tend to guilty of using too much jargon myself, so if I feel like its excessive, then that should tell you something about the flow of this first chapter.

In his conclusion, Seitz notes that he endeavored to detail the extraordinary range of the canonical approach (85), so he might be forgiven for lacking clarity. It really seems like what was a 70 page chapter should have probably been a monograph in its own right. At any rate, chapter 2 turns to explain the true nature of biblical theology, and once again, the thought of Brevard Childs takes center stage. As Seitz says early on, “Christian theological reflection on the canon of Scripture as twofold in essence is the main task of biblical theology” (96). He goes on to say that “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” (103). In other words, Seitz is concerned that the OT is allowed to continue to speak for itself as Christian Scripture, not that it might necessarily be re-interpreted in light of the NT.

In order to better illustrate how he envisions this paradigm affecting interpretation, Seitz examines The Letter to the Hebrews in chapter 3. He picks this of course because of the author of Hebrews use of extensive OT backgrounds and quotations. He also converses extensively with Andrew Lincoln’s article in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation. In addition, he picks Otfried Hofius as a conversation partner, and ends up littering a few pages with untranslated German quotations. He then ends the chapter turning to, as you might have guessed, Brevard Childs and his approach to The Letter to The Hebrews and most of the time is spent on that unpacking project.

In chapter 4, the journey continues on to a discussion of the Psalms and particularly their use in recent NT scholarship. In entering into this discussion, Seitz is urging for a view of the OT that doesn’t leave it as merely the backdrop for the “important stuff” like the Gospels and Epistles. Particularly, he hopes to see the Psalms continue to be used as Christian Scripture in their own right and not just being appropriated as the come up in the NT.

Chapter 5 then fleshes out how the Old and New Testaments respectively fit into a canonical approach. The general idea is that both testaments should be allowed to sound their own “theological notes” that are allowed to ring out together. This is done without necessarily deciding ahead of time which note is the melody and which is the harmony.

Up to this point, much of the book has been devoted to sketching out the canonical approach to interpretation, expositing the thought of Brevard Childs and distinguishing the uniqueness and advantages of the approach over and against other options. In chapter 6 though, Seitz turns to a practical application of this approach. He takes as his subject the issue that has arisen in the Episcopal Church over same-sex relationships. As he says, “our present crisis has to do with the way Scripture makes its specifically two-testament voice heard” (179). Seitz insists that “the two Testaments speak of the same God in Christ, though in different dispensations and in different figural directions.” Because of this, Seitz observes:

Our crisis has to do with the failure to know how to use the OT theologically and doctrinally. Our crisis has to do with not knowing how to deal in a balanced and appropriate way with the dual voice of Christian Scripture, New and Old Testaments both (181).

In other words, much of the issue within not just the Episcopal church, but others as well over the issue of same-sex relationships, is not being able to think theologically from both testaments of Christian Scripture. If it is true, as Seitz continues, that “the kind of sexual living and thriving Christians have traditionally confessed and taught is explicitly reliant on a network of assumptions available in the OT” (189), then evacuating the continuing relevance of the OT will damage the foundation of the church’s teaching on sexual relationships. Or, as Seitz puts it, “one is left in a state of confusion and crisis, such as is now manifestly and publicly plaguing the church.” He concludes by saying

It is my conviction that 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 (190).

It should readily be apparent then what dangers are ahead for interpreters who treat the OT as “Phase One” then the NT as “Phase Two.” It is only natural to begin thinking our modern enlightened era can certainly qualify as “Phase Three,” and from there we’re soon cast adrift in a sea of our own subjective ideas about Christian sexual ethics. The evidence that this isn’t just a slipper slope argument is that that is how many are already arguing (e. g. the trajectory hermeneutic offered by interpreters like William Webb).

At this point, Seitz concludes in chapter 7 by digging more into The Rule of Faith, and rounds out the book with a few final words about the importance of treating the NT and OT as equals as Christian Scripture. Overall, I think that Seitz makes a significant contribution to the discussion, but is hampered by a lack of clarity that makes his early chapters hard to follow. At first I thought it might just be his writing style, but he shows in the later chapters his ability to offer incisive and clear analysis of important issues.

Conclusion

In that light then, I have a hard time recommending this book, even though I feel that is an important one on the topic. I suppose my main concern is that if I, as a recent seminary graduate with a Th.M have a hard time following his discussion, then it is not likely that someone with less than a seminary degree will be able to track with Seitz easily without having a rather taxing time with it. If we were to give it a rating then, I would probably classify this book as doctoral level discussion, which is why it was probably hard for me to track with, but your local Ph.D student may be able to decode it for you.

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Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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