Cook-the formation of the people of God

Spiritual formation is a term for the use of disciplines to advance religious or spiritual growth and sanctification . I have seen the term used by Catholics, Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Jews, and even new age Pagans. But I think it may have originated with the Catholic, Henri Nouwen. It usually refers to the use of things like set prayer, meditation, silence, readings, fasting, etc. to help people move to a more focused and mature spirituality.

In the introduction to Reading Deuteronomy, Stephen Cook suggests that Deuteronomy is about spiritual formation. He notices that the intended audience of Deuteronomy is the common people of ancient Israel. This contrasts with a book like Leviticus (although the Holiness Code in Leviticus 16 ff. is sometimes different) whose intended audience is a priestly elite. Deuteronomy is mostly about how ordinary Israelites and their families are supposed to practice devotion to YHWH. It occasionally includes instructions for priests or kings, but that is not its central thrust.

The word “Deuteronomy” means a second Torah. The reason for a second Torah was the need to renew the law of Moses for a later generation. Thus in Deuteronomy Moses is not the historical Moses but a literary Moses addressing the people embarking into the promised land.

“Properly understood, Moses’ role in Deuteronomy is not to impose a deadening conformity to a strict set of rules but patiently to teach God’s people a path of human formation that lives into God’s freely offered salvation. Deuteronomy is about the formation of renewed persons, newly graced with abundant, God-directed life.” (Some Kindle books now have page numbers. This one doesn’t seem to. The quote is from the introductory chapter).

As a book set in the midst of Israel’s pilgrimage, Deuteronomy speaks to people who see the spiritual life as a journey or pilgrimage. Its teachings aim to form God’s people in the midst of a trek. They have come out of slavery in Egypt and received the covenant at Horeb, but they have not crossed the Jordan to settle the land yet. Deuteronomy is addressed to Israel as they occupy the “liminal position” of a people waiting to move on and take up their true destiny.

For Cook, there was a proto-Deuteronomy found in the Temple as 2 Kings 22-23 records. However, he strongly disagrees with those who think this was a pious fraud, a book concocted just to further the political agenda of the Josiah party.  It shares the tradition of the pained prophets Hosea and Jeremiah, who certainly were not spiritual frauds.

Rather Deuteronomy arose from several disparate sources that shared a heritage in a village-centered Israel. This goes back to his argument in the Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism that the institutions of landed gentry, village elders and rural Levites formed a counter movement to the royal bureaucracy–both administrative and priestly–in ancient Israel. These institutions lay behind the Elohist, the Psalms of Asaph, and the prophets Micah and Hosea. At last they “flowered” in Deuteronomy.

Proto-Deuteronomy came together sometime in the fifty years before Josiah. A limit to its antiquity is its familiarity with the Neo-Assyian Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon. Deuteronomy echoed these treaties, and sometimes used specific language from them, especially in the curses in Deuteronomy 28.

So Cook holds that a “covert coalition” of marginalized Levites and people of the land aligned with some important people in Jerusalem, like Hilkiah, to put together a key group or cell of scribes who assembled and edited proto-Deuteronomy (chapters 6-26 plus 28). During the dark years before Josiah “they kept their work under wraps.”

That is his basic theory. I have not summarized all his evidence for it. He has quite a lot. He may well be right. I would only point out that when he calls these scribes editors and assemblers, he leaves room for the possibility that much of the content of Deuteronomy is much older. This is what Adam Welch in his Code of Deuteronomy claimed (this old book was a reading project covered on this blog beginning in April, 2012). Welch claimed that the setting of some of the laws in Deuteronomy was as old as the time of the Judges. About this, his and Cook’s views do not necessarily conflict.

However, Cook is going to stress the final forms of Deuteronomy and their literary use as teachings about the formation of the people of God.

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Cook-commentary on Deuteronomy

Stephen Cook has published a new commentary on Deuteronomy.

I used his Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism as a reading project a while back. His approach in that book was to see the main thrust of the Hebrew Bible deriving, not from an evolution from polytheism, but from a conservative tradition maintained by village elders and Levites.

The “people of the land” who rebelled against Queen Athaliah and later installed Josiah as king were people like the prophet Micah who maintained a continuity with the 11th or 12th century village culture of ancient Israel.

The rural Levites were people like Hosea and the Asaph psalmists who maintained a Sinai tradition as an alternative to religious innovations during the Monarchy.

This was definitely a counter theory about the roots of Yahwism.

So next week I will start a reading project dealing with his Reading Deuteronomy: a Literary and Theological Commentary. From the blurbs and introduction this looks like a different approach. He says he wants to communicate his own enthusiasm for the Book of Deuteronomy and take on misconceptions about the book. He hints that he will argue that the book is not graceless and legalistic but highly relevant to the spirituality and ethics of contemporary Christians.

I am looking forward to this, especially because I feel that some of what I have blogged about recently may seem abstract and academic.

This is not my intent. I am a committed Christian dissatisfied with both the evangelical and social justice approaches that dominate contemporary church life. We now have red churches and blue churches in America, just like our red and blue states.  The red churches think they are biblical.  The blue churches think they are inclusive. I think both are delusional.

It seems to me that a big part of the problem is the way we interpret the Bible. So I am exploring alternatives.

Stephen Cook promises an enthusiastic and respectful reading of Deuteronomy. I do not know what he will say for sure, but it sounds like a fruitful endeavor by a scholar I already regard highly.

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Barr-the last lecture

I am coming to the conclusion of James Barr’s 1990-91 Gifford Lectures, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology.

At the beginning of his last lecture Barr summarized the thrust of his argument so far:

We have shown I think that principles akin to those of natural theology are present in the Bible both in the New Testament and in the Old and that the connection between them is enhanced and deepened when we take into account the transmission of ideas as between the two testaments and especially as illustrated by the so-called apocryphal literature. Even if the elements of natural theology are considered as a somewhat minor constituent within the Bible the functions of these elements remain very essential. In particular in certain relations they form the cement which links together various themes of scripture and equally they form one of the channels through which themes are enabled to pass from the earlier stages of their formulation to the later most importantly in the connection between Old and New Testaments. Thus we are in a position to say that theologies which in principle denied natural theology ran into a deep inner contradiction. Though they aspired to provide through the rejection of natural theology a much deeper and more consistent base for the deployment of biblical truth in effect their own principle forced them away from the realities of the Bible.

The vivid and negative polemic against Karl Barth continues in this last lecture. For instance:

“ The countless pages of wearisome inept and futile exegesis in the Church Dogmatics especially in the later volumes were only a testimony to the fact that the Bible cannot be used theologically when the work of biblical scholarship is brushed aside.”

Barr’s point, I think, was that the turn against natural theology actually inhibited understanding the Bible, because natural theology was part of the Bible.

But I am looking for a positive way forward in biblical interpretation. What I remember about Barr from the 1970s was that he had challenged the approach of Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT). I agreed with Barr then and refused to use Kittel. This is partly because I am an anti-Nazi bigot and Kittel was another Nazi. Of course, Kittel did not write most of the articles in the dictionary. Prominent German New Testament scholars, including Rudolf Bultmann and Oscar Cullmann were contributors.

The approach was flawed and James Barr wrote Semantics of Biblical Language largely to criticize the TDNT’s isolating of words from their context. This influenced me to avoid doing word studies as a means of interpretation. I might have overdone that. I had not read Barr much since the ‘70s.

But I see some continuity with what Barr had previously written. He carried his criticism forward to the new interpretive method of canonical interpretation. Yes, he knew that that the books of the Bible were those the church decided to read in worship. Daniel was in. Enoch was out. But for interpretation, he thought it was a serious mistake to isolate canonical books from the others.

An instance of what Barr meant is how he thought Paul used the Wisdom of Solomon. To ignore that connection means to misunderstand Paul. He also pointed out that Daniel needs Enoch for its interpretation. Some books are biblical but not canonical.
He thought it was a mistake to make the interpretation of the Bible a matter of finding internal connections between ideas within the biblical text. The texts rely partly on external input from culture and from what Barr called natural theology.

The unintended result of the Barthian rejection of natural theology was to isolate biblical theology from the larger questions of philosophical and moral theology. It also separated Catholics and Protestants to the extent that Catholics remained willing to engage natural theology.

As an example of all this, he used the concept of Holy War in the Hebrew Bible. Such war often involved the sacred destruction of property and people captured in war, the herem. Biblical theology spent much effort explaining that this was not motivated by hatred, but by a religious devotion to God that eschewed the corruption involved in taking booty or slaves.

However, this understanding is no help in dealing with the fact that the Bible claims mass killing was commanded by God. This is a theological and moral problem. But Barr thought that the exclusion of natural theology caused the biblical theology movement not to take the moral offense seriously. People spilled a lot of ink about a theology of holy war that was internal to the biblical texts.

Barr did not try to provide a solution to the moral problem except to claim that natural theology had to be brought in as a conversation-partner. Since mass murder and ethnic cleansing based in ideology and religion are contemporary events (he was talking about stuff going on in the 1980s and 90s, not ISIS), we can’t isolate this question to an internal study of the Bible.

Barr threw a knock-out punch against the twentieth-century Protestant rejection of natural theology. But he has not been as helpful to me has I had hoped in forging a new way of interpretation.

One avenue I want to pursue is his statement that a lone holdout among twentieth century German biblical theologians was H. H. Schmid. Barr said that

“Schmid put forward a very interesting and original proposal according to which creation was the main and comprehensive horizon the history of religion and the common ground with other religions was positively valued and the themes of order and peace were given centrality.”

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Barr-metaphors and authority

James Barr, in a further lecture from his Gifford Lectures on Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, explored the possible relations of natural theology in the Bible to science and linguistics. He knew that he was not talking about any developed natural theology. But he looked for ways that the Bible recognizes that the universe is a reality that speaks to us of God.

Today people generally look at the universe through the lens of science. This was not so in the biblical world. Although the Wisdom literature uses observation of the world to illuminate practical problems, it did not base its view of God on anything like science.

So Barr asked about the possibility that linguistics shows us how the Bible used natural theology. In other words, what forms of language or rhetoric in the Bible show us a basis for theology in the natural world. He points to metaphors that speak of this.

One that I had not thought of in a while is the metaphor of God walking in the Garden of Eden in the evening. God really does walk in the garden. Metaphorically deity is with us in nature.

Barr concluded that, although theologians talk of central metaphors like covenant as revelatory, those metaphors were based on a hidden natural theology. There was an “anterior” knowledge of God that underlay the Bible’s God talk.

This led to the discussion of the parables of Jesus. These rested on observation of the world. The birds of the air and lilies of the field give insight into God. But most of the time the parables draw on human relations like father and son or king and subjects. These, though, apply metaphorically to the divine-human relationship.

Jesus got these stories from observing the world. So Barr wondered in what sense one could say they were revealed.

Basically Barr questioned the way Barth and others had used the idea of the Word of God as though it came in a direct way without being mediated through the anterior knowledge of God that comes from the world we experience. He did not think revelation could be separated from human experience.

So what of the authority of the Bible? Well, just when Barr seemed to have discounted it, he turned and said that the Bible is somehow a revelatory tradition interpreted by the Church. He says that ascriptions of authority like “holy”, “inspired” and even “infallible” apply if we use them primarily to speak of the Church. The authority of the Bible will depend on the authority of the Church. For Catholics that will be a strong authority. For Protestants it will be a weaker one.

I am not quite sure where Barr went with this in the 10th and final lecture, which I haven’t read yet. For now, I think I have a little more robust doctrine of revelation than he does. That is, I take the Bible to have an objective content which is revelatory apart from its interpretation by any current form of the Church. I tend to say that God has revealed himself in historical events.

People often assume that if events have natural causes and stand alongside other historical events they cannot also be revelatory. However, I tend toward the view that this is reductionist. In other words, I don’t see why an event can not both have natural causes and be in its timing and nature a pretty clear word from God. Sometimes Barr seemed to disagree with this. But I do not yet see why.

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Barr-the image of God

James Barr in Biblical Faith and Natural Theology spent a lot of time talking about the image of God question only to conclude that it has little to do with natural theology.

An old argument for natural theology was that, because God made humans in the image of God, they had a capacity for natural knowledge of God. Barr went into the several ways that the image of God has been understood in theology.

There was the idea that the image of God was a spiritual or rational character endowed to man, but not to the animals.

There was the idea that there was a difference between the image of God and the likeness of God. In the Fall, we lost our likeness to God, but retained the image of God (approximately the position of Irenaeus).

There was the idea that the image of God was physical or material. Genesis 5:3 (where Adam’s son is in Adam’s likeness and image) is best interpreted this way. The God of the Hebrew Bible was anthropomorphic so man could be in his literal image. However, there are other voices in the Hebrew Bible that call this into question.

More recently scholars put forth the functional view of the image of God: that the image consists in sharing with God in dominion over creation.

Then there was Karl Barth’s off-beat interpretation. At first, Barth had said that the image of God in man was lost in the Fall. But later he developed the idea that the image as not a possession that one could lose. It was relational. It concerned the connection between the statement that God created man in his own image and the statement that God created them male and female. The image of God consisted in the relationality of God as triune and the relationality of man as male and female.

Barr attacked Barth’s view as not being what Genesis meant and also not being how Paul the Apostle understood Genesis.

This is all true. But one could argue that the “mystery” of marriage and God’s relationship to Christ in Ephesians 5 supports Barth even though that passage is not about the image of God.

In the end Barr said:

The image of God in humanity is not something that can be defined as if we could point to this or that characteristic which clearly exists and to which the phrase expressly refers. But we can say that it belongs to the confluence of a group of nodal theological issues: monotheism creation anthropomorphism condemnation of idolatry—exactly the issues out of which as we have seen the tradition of natural theology emerged.

So you cannot derive natural theology from any innate human capacity defined as the created image of God. However, Emil Brunner’s arguments against Barth look better in the light of this discussion. Brunner thought the Fall left only a tiny, but significant, point of contact between God and humanity in natural theology. Barr thought it had to be something broader than a tiny point of contact.

He thought Brunner’s further arguments for “orders of creation” opened the door for something broader. This also fit in with the Genesis idea that creation involved the “ordering” of the world and the Wisdom idea that insight into the world was insight into the created order.

One point at which I question Barr is his argument that the P creation poem or account depended on Second Isaiah. Critical scholars see Second Isaiah (the poems of Isaiah 40-55) as addressed to the Babylonian exiles. I do not see how P could depend on Second Isaiah since before the exile Jeremiah already seems to draw upon the P account (Jeremiah 4:23). In the light of the theory of Israel Knohl and Jacob Milgrom that P is pre-exilic, perhaps Second Isaiah also depended on P.

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Off-line downtime

I unexpectedly lost the Internet Tuesday. A tree service company cut down a tree on an adjoining lot and knocked out our DSL in the process. Collateral damage.

Until 1994 I had no Internet and somehow lived happily. But now if I lose access to the web, I lose access to WordPress and blogs I regularly read, to email, to Amazon and other shopping, to social media, to news, to the ability to stream music and movies, and, in this case, to the Gifford Lecture that is my reading project.

Maybe we have become too dependent. Of course, I could have taken my tablet somewhere with free Wi-Fi. But, instead, I actually worked on some non-web related projects at home.

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Barr-the meaning of biblical natural theology

James Barr in his Biblical Faith and Natural Theology argued that the Bible contains natural theology or something akin to it. He qualified this claim in a long lecture about religion, tradition and natural theology.

One of his interesting points was that there is a tension in the Bible between the universal and rational notion of God that we associate with natural theology and the personal, dynamic, and often anthropomorphic God of the Bible. Natural theology would conceive of God as unchanging and all-knowing. But in the Bible God sometimes changes and sometimes doesn’t know everything.

Sometimes the Bible affirms the unchangableness of God (1 Samuel 15:29) and sometimes it affirms that he knows everything (Jesus saying that he knows when every sparrow will fall and numbers the hairs on our heads). Since the Bible has it both ways, it is unlikely that either side of the tension is revealed. The anthropomorphic character of God relates to mythology. God often acts in the Bible in ways similar to the way the Greek gods act in Homer. But the universal, transcendent side of the tension probably comes from applying reason after the fashion of natural theology.

I am going to quote a section of his lecture where he states his view of how natural theology worked for the Jews.

Although the natural theology of the Jews insisted that from the observation of the created world one could and should conclude to the existence of the creator that was not the way in which their own ancestors had arrived at their belief in the one creator God They had arrived at it indeed not by simple revelation as if God had just told them I happen to be the creator of the world. They had arrived at it through an intellectual process caused by the meeting of two forces: on the one hand the mythologies of the origin of the world which were inherited from earlier and environing religion and from earlier stages of their own religion and on the other hand and dominantly their own monotheism their tradition of the one God which brought about a substantial remoulding of ideas in this area. It was by some such process and not primarily by actual observation of the universe that they came to the view of creation which we find in Genesis 1: generally speaking a world formed by a process of separation and ordering the result being all good.

So the Bible does not rely for its understanding of creation on direct revelation or on empirical data, but on a process of accommodating the mythologies around them with a tradition of monotheism.

Barr did  not see the tradition of monotheism as the result of God telling Israel this in an uncomplicated way. Rather they probably got it from others. He mentioned the Kenite hypothesis that Moses may have derived his monotheism from the people of his father-in-law, the Kenite or Midianite priest. He also seemed to think the Levites may originally have been non-Israelite. From both of these sources Israel may have gotten an imperfect and sometimes fanatical monotheism.

The Bible is partly the process of Israel working out the implications of this tradition. For a long time they were strongly tempted by polytheism. But eventually they settled on monotheism. They used a faulty and amateurish kind of natural theology in the process.

For this reason we cannot use their form of natural theology as a standard or a norm. What Barr seemed to say is that the reality that they used natural theology gives us a mandate to go beyond them and use a better kind of natural theology in our theology and biblical interpretation.

One of the reasons that Biblical natural theology cannot become ours is that the biblical writers were badly misinformed about some aspects of reality. So, in order for us to use natural theology, we have to bring to bear the best philosophy and science that we can so as to have a better informed natural theology.

I guess I have some questions about this because it seems to me to give us too much leeway. Just one example that he brought up tangentially is that for the authors who gave us the command to be fruitful and multiply the problem was underpopulation. But what if the reality is overpopulation? Does this allow us to cut free entirely from the family as a reproductive unit? Does it allow us to make up a different structure in which marriage and parenthood become much less important? In other words, if the realities addressed by the Bible change, does that allow us to make up a completely different moral agenda?

Maybe Barr dealt with this more in a later lecture.

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