Saturday, January 26, 2008

Exegesis and Theology: Julius Wellhausen

Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) is, of course, famous for his work on the documentary hypothesis concerning the Pentateuch. While reading through his section in Baird's History of NT Research 151-156), I couldn't help but think of the debate going on in the biblioblogosphere concerning exegesis and theology (to read more about this topic see posts by Bird, Meyers, and Chaplin). Here are Wellhausen's two cents on the subject:

Generally, on has no right to establish a priori any privileged points of view...One must rather proceed from certain impulses furnished by exegesis itself. (Baird, 2:152)

Was Wellhausen right? Should we try not to approach the text with our presuppositions? Or should be just admit that it can't be done and unabashedly do so anyhow?


Chris said...

I am of the opinion that presuppostions are inevitably a part of an interpreters make-up and cannot be set aside. What one can do, however, is be forthright about these presuppositions. If that means saying something like, "I believe being as objective as possible will render the best interpretaion," (assuming objectivity is attainable?) or "I am beginning with the assumption that pacifism (or any other -ism) is the stance that will render the best interpretation," then so be it. But, assuming that one can detect the impulses provided by exegesis itself without recourse to one's own presuppositions is misguided. The real issue is determining what it is one believes exegesis will render or should render for its audience. If one adheres to the notion that exegesis ought to speak the ideas and thoughts of the original author in ways that are more clear and understandable for today's readers, then one will likely move toward objectivity. If one, instead, believes exegesis is an ad hoc tool for reading sacred texts for the life of the community for whom the text is sacred, then a starting position from within that community's worldview is not a bad thing, is it? This does not mean that carful readings will not challenge these worldviews, but it also does not mean that those worldviews ought to be squelched before proper exegesis can take place.

This is a big can of worms that I cannot and have not adequately addressed. I'm thinking more off the cuff.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

I agree with most of what you have said Chris. My point of departure, however, is that I am not yet convinced that we can't get to original authorial intent. I know that this makes me a pariah in today's postmodern world, but if I accept anything else then that means that any reading of the text has as much claim to validity as the next. (And there are simply bad!)

I agree with you, though, that the worldview of the community in which we live and work does affect the way we read and interpret our sacred texts. But I don't think that because of this truth that we should not at least attempt to be as objective as possible when approaching the text. Just the opposite: we should admit our presuppositions and try to read the text in spite of them or even against them.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

Chris said...

If we can "get to original authorial intent," then theoretically exegesis should eventually end. Once we finally "get to original authorial intent" all exegetes can quit and become people who apply and help others apply the "original authorial intent." I contend, with Stephen Fowl (Engaging Scripture), that theological interpretation is a reading of the text that uses historical criticism in an ad hoc way in order to address the more important questions of life together and with God. Because of this, exegesis, at least of the theolgical-interpretation type, will never end, because our life together and with God never ends.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

That is very instructive.

I just received a copy of Joel Green's Seized by Truth which is subtitled "Reading the Bible as Scripture." I bet he may have some things to say that will be helpful here as well!

Chris said...

Yes, Joel should have some good things to say. He skews toward the postion I'm advocating, if I read him right in other places (I have not read Seized by Truth).