Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Little Gidding and Theological Education

I'm not a poetry guy. I wish I were. I'm not. I don't know what T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding is about. In fact, I haven't even read the whole poem. But today I ran across these lines from near the end of the poem:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

Those lines resonated with me, especially in terms of theological education (I guess in other areas, too). Here's what I mean: if you do advanced study in theology, and come out at the other end still with some faith, you'll perhaps find that you've come full circle on certain topics. You'll find yourself affirming the same things you affirmed in your pre-critical years, things that you thought you had long abandoned once you were introduced to biblical scholarship. Actually, I guess these lines from Eliot sorta summarize biblical scholarship as a whole (except that, for biblical scholarship and for me, the journey continues; or, as Eliot says, the exploration has not ceased).

Example: I was reading Child's The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, and found that Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth century "disregarded all appeals to the New Testament's use of the Old Testament as possessing any exegetical authority" (p. 231). And, of course, many biblical scholars would continue to affirm such a principle. And yet, after just finishing Hays' Reading Backwards (see here and here), I am very conscious that some major biblical interpreters today would want to argue with Grotius a bit. I think Hays would want to say: "Sure, Grotius, the usual interpretations of Isaiah that you've heard that have relied for their authority on the NT have been way off, and so we should abandon them. But that doesn't mean that the NT has nothing to teach us in regard to how to read Isaiah. Really, it's just that the interpretations you've heard have been bad interpretations, not that their principle that the NT has exegetical authority in terms of the OT is a bad principle. Those interpretations have just misinterpreted the NT's use of the OT, and so necessarily have misinterpreted the OT. But when approached critically, the NT can offer guidance for our appropriation of the OT."

That's what I imagine Hays might say to Grotius. What he actually does say is:
it would be a hermeneutical blunder to read the Law and the Prophets as deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus. But in light of the unfolding story of Jesus, it is both right and illuminating to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story. (p. 94)
Here is a way that Hays (presumably--at least it's true for me) has arrived at the beginning and has seen it for the first time. This example seems indicative of the theological enterprise as a whole: you often come back to affirm the things you believed in your younger years, but for completely different reasons from the ones that undergirded your beliefs previously.

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