Wilhelm Vischer, Human Epistle, Shift in Hope

I started Understanding Poets and Prophets: Essays in Honour of George Wishart Anderson.  In this post, I’ll blog about three of the essays that I read.

1.  One essay was by James Barr, and it was entitled “Wilhelm Vischer and Allegory”.  In one of the many disputes between Barr and Brevard Childs, Barr argued that “there is not so complete a gulf of difference between critical scholarship and allegory as is commonly supposed” (page 38), and Childs responded by appealing to the example of Wilhelm Vischer, a scholar who supposedly used allegory and was consequently ostracized by many scholars, who thought that Vischer’s approach was contrary to the historical-critical method.  In this essay, Barr essentially argues that this particular portrayal of Vischer is inaccurate.  Barr contends that Vischer had no problem with the historical-critical method, and that his approach was not allegory, but rather the assertion that Christ appears in the Old Testament (i.e., as the man who wrestles Jacob, etc.).  According to Barr, the criticisms of Vischer were primarily on theological grounds.  Gerhard Von Rad thought that Vischer read the Hebrew Bible through the prism of the Reformers (i.e., Martin Luther), and thus did not sufficiently allow Scripture to speak from its different historical-contexts, as a critique of interpretations.  And Norman Porteous believed that Vischer’s view that Christ appeared in the Hebrew Bible lessened the significance of the incarnation.

When Barr was a Barthian, he liked Vischer, and he states on page 46 that Vischer “provided a rather smooth, easy and friendly transition into the work of historical scholarship in the Bible, something that I would never have gained from the average critical ‘Introduction’.”  (Barr may have in mind here professors who get a kick out of wrecking students’ faith.)  And Barr acknowledges that there is a degree of reasonableness behind Vischer’s approach, but, ultimately, he views it as arbitrary, for it offered no method to weigh one set of possibilities against others.  For example, why should we believe that the man who wrestled with Jacob was Jesus Christ?  Is there anything other than personal preference that can validate that idea?  According to Barr, at least there was “a tradition of reasoned philosophical principle” behind allegory!

2.  Another essay I read was by R.P. Carroll, who wrote When Prophecy Failed: Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testament.  This essay was entitled “Inscribing the Covenant: Writing and the Written in Jeremiah”.  Jeremiah 8:8 criticizes the pen of the scribe, and Carroll argues that Jeremiah prefers the oral expression of the word of God rather than putting it in written form.  Jeremiah preferred oral expression because it was immediate, whereas he believed that written expression could be corrupted.  According to Carroll, there was an “ancient suspicion about writing in favour of the spoken word” (page 64).

Carroll also brings Jeremiah 31:31-34 into the discussion—and that is the passage in which God promises to write his law on the heart of the house of Israel and the house of Judah, as part of a new covenant.  The old covenant, which was written down, could be nullified when the document was destroyed—as occurred when Moses shattered the tablets of the Decalogue.  (And Jeremiah’s book, too, was vulnerable to destruction.)  But the new covenant was not in any such danger, for it was about the internalization of God’s law.

Carroll then draws a parallel between Jeremiah 31:31-34 and II Corinthians 3, in which Paul affirms that the Corinthian Christians are his epistles—and he contrasts writing in ink and on stones with writing that occurs with the Spirit of God, on the tablets of the human heart.  Carroll makes some homiletical (if you will) applications of his findings.  He says that people are more important than written texts, which is why fundamentalism is problematic.  He also reminiscences about George Anderson—to whom this book is dedicated—for Anderson did not write much, but he was a good teacher, who modeled how one could be a Christian and a biblical scholar at the same time.

3.  I also read R.E. Clements’ “Jeremiah 1-25 and the Deuteronomistic History”.  Clements makes a point that I have read in other places, and which I have also discussed on this blog: that the prophetic books are not necessarily a transcript of the historical prophet and his teachings, for the books manifest a significant amount of literary activity.  For instance, Jeremiah appears to be modeled on Moses.

But what I want to mention is something that Clements says on page 111.  Clements states that Jeremiah 1-25 was a Deuteronomistic edition made in Judah, and that it left some room for hope that the Judeans could repent, observe the Torah, and “lift [themselves] up amidst the ruins of Jerusalem and rebuild the city and surrounding countryside.”  According to Clements, Jeremiah himself had this same sort of hope, as we see in Jeremiah 40:1-12.  But such hope disappeared by the time that the revised scroll of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1-52) emerged, and, at that point, hope was placed in the exiled Jews’ return to Judah.  At a certain stage of the Book of Jeremiah, there was hope that the remnant in the land would become the basis for a restored Israel.  Later, however, hope was placed in the exiled Jews—who were outside of the land.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.