Saturday, July 29, 2006

RE Clements - A Century of Old Testament Study

It's worth clearing a few things up before I deal with the book in detail. First up, RE Clements is not the same person as Roy Clements, the formerly prominent gay evangelical preacher. Shame - that would have made it more interesting. RE Clements has a photo which takes up a quarter of the back of the book, wearing a stuffy shirt and tie, gazing slightly confusedly into the distance. Bad sign.

Secondly, this is my first real encounter with a symphathetic treatment of OT liberal criticism. My main previous one was reading Josh McDowell's More Evidence that Demands a Verdict, but that was over a decade ago.

What Clements does well is to present an outline of the views and trends of liberal criticism of the Old Testament, basically from Wellhausen (late 1800s) to the late 1970s. He also interacts with some of the views and makes his own thinking clear. And he does the whole literature review thing pretty well.

What he doesn't do, or provide any justification for, is the underlying assumptions of the liberal critical movement. Roughly, the movement seems to assume:

  • The development of religion in OT Israel follows broad trends put forwards in some kind of religious sociology. So the development of an individualistic conception of morality, for example, has to come quite late.
  • Predictive prophecy doesn't work. So, for example, the fact that Deuteronomy basically sketches out the outline of what happens in Joshua - 2 Kings (and it does) means that it must have been written after those events occurred, though it may have strands of earlier tradition in it
  • That the OT history is written not primarily to record what happened, but for the benefit of the original readers (I kind of agree with this one)
  • That the "traditional view" e.g. (Genesis - Deuteronomy written by Moses) is wrong, and most of the OT stems from around the time of the exile, or later.
  • If two bits are stylistically different (e.g. prose and poetry sections in Jeremiah), they must have been written by different groups of people at different times. One can only wonder what they would make of a novel by Iain M Banks or Margaret Attwood, where multiple different stylings are quite normal. McDowell applies their methods to Dante's Inferno with interesting results.
  • That the OT is not all about Jesus.

One of my (many) concerns about this approach is their attitude to testability. For example, originally they predicted that the wisdom literature (Proverbs, etc) had to come as a development of the work of the Prophets, and hence to be post-exilic. But then some ancient Egyptian stuff was discovered, very similar to bis of Proverbs, that predated Moses. So wisdom was then moved earlier in their conception. They had the 10 Commandments as being a late development, but then found that the Egyptians and Babylonians had similar systems of laws earlier than the traditionalists (like me) would claim they were written.

Nor, as far as I am aware, have the methods of soure criticism or form criticism been applied to books of known provenance to test them. Had they been, I suspect they would have failed. In addition, the methods produce a wide variety of different interpretations of what actually happened. The methods therefore seem to me decidedly unscientific.

It is certainly noteworthy that when they deal with Bible books that we know were compiled from a variety of sources (Samuel and Kings), their methods seem significantly less successful than when working with books that might conceivably have been the work of a single author (e.g. Exodus). That suggests to me that they find a lot of false positives.

In trying to reconstruct a theology of the OT, they also ignore the major theme of the future hope of the Christ (which is kind of hard to miss). This is especially of concern since if we are taking a Christian view of the OT, it is certainly worth seeing what Christ himself said about the Old Testament.

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
John 5:39-40

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Luke 24:27

It is perfectly understandable that they cannot come to an integrated understanding of OT theology withouth Christ - he is the integration point of OT theology.

There are nevertheless some interesting questions raised, though I don't think they necessarily answer them too well. In some cases, Clements even recognises that they haven't really answered them:

  • To what extent were the historical books edited and modified by their eventual compilers? We can see that it must have happened a fair bit (e.g. by comparing Samuel/Kings with Chronicles). I think we as evangelicals sometimes lose sight of the fact that the Jews regarded Joshua - Esther as prophetic books.
  • What was the role of oral tradition in preserving material (e.g. patriarchal accounts in Genesis, prophesy)? To what extent was the material then shaped by the community which preserved it as well as vice versa?
  • What was the original purpose of the Psalms? Were e.g. the angsty ones they written as someone feeling a lot of angst, or were they written essentially as scripts for a mystery play? And what does Ps 45 mean?
  • Who compiled Proverbs? Why?
  • Why was the OT written in the way that it is, with so many different styles?

Overall, one thing that really gets to me is the subjectivity of the whole liberal criticism thing. In the summary, Clements writes:

What Wellhausen's Prolegomena achieved for Old Testament studies was a better picture of the history of Israel's religious institutions than that which had been afforded by the traditional view which is reflected in the Old Testament itself. It offered a satisfactory working basis from which it became possible to place is a comprehensible sequence the various layers of material containing references to them. That such a sequence made use of a broadly evolutionary theory of development and historical growth is undeniable, but nevertheless it was more credible than the traditional view which it replaced.

Better? More credible? Says who? On what criteria? If there is a God who raised Jesus Christ bodily from the dead, then he is more than capable of revealing his law to a nation on a mountain in the desert. And given that they came from a culture which already had a code of law and which could already write it down just makes it seem more likely that they just might have written it down in such an event. If there is not a God who raised Jesus Christ bodily from the dead, then I see no reason why it's even worth bothering worrying about what happened to Israel 3000 years ago.

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