Saturday, July 30, 2022

Midsummer Reading: Oliver O'Donovan and Ephraim Radner

I checked out a copy of Oliver O'Donovan's Resurrection and Moral Order 18 or so years ago on my PhD supervisor's recommendation. As I recall, I got a few dozen pages in before returning it to the library. The book was dense with lengthy excurses in fine print, and I was in my first year of teaching. Maybe also: the book was by a theologian, while I was a freshly-minted Biblical scholar. To be honest, I suspect I was not ready for it.

This summer I checked out the library's copy a second time. Even though I typically only manage a few pages every now and then before bed, I am now about halfway through and find it mesmerizing. Humbling too. It is remarkable how the thirty-one year old O'Donovan was able to range so widely and so authoritatively over such a vast theological, philosophical and biblical terrain, and to do it in such a short compass with such clarity.* 

* A note on clarity: Resurrection and Moral Order is still an academic book with occasional sentences like this one: The value of the voluntarist emphasis lay in its perception that the dialectic between reason and revelation rests not on an accidental deficiency of human reason but on the aboriginal metaphysical fact that human reason is not transcendent. Clarity, I suppose, is in the ear of the listener.

Again and again one encounters convincing explanations of the implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus for Christian behaviour alongside compelling mini-exegeses of biblical passages. I keep telling myself I need to go back and add it to my course notes for several different classes. If this is what theology means, sign me up.

Ephraim Radner's Time and the Word is still beyond me. I purchased an e-copy on sale after a former colleague, who had studied under Radner, enthused about it. Critics complain that Radner's prose is needlessly dense. Time and the Word is a difficult book and, it must be said, it is not a model of clarity. But, as Paul J. Griffiths put it in his review:

“It's a real book, by which I mean that it's the written deposit of concentrated thought about a set of questions as if it were important to approach and answer them rightly. It's something more than journeyman academic work, and something more, too, than the work of someone who cares for the church and wishes to serve her. It has the unusual virtue of combining wide learning, intellectual passion, and devotion to Christ and his church. In reading it, it seemed to me that I was faced with a mind at work on something that matters.” 

Kevin Vanhoozer describes it this way:

“Time and the World is a demanding book: ambitious in scope, theological in substance, counter-cultural in spirit, at turns breath-taking and headscratching in style, yet always urgent and important in its moral and spiritual summons to acknowledge our status as creatures of God’s word.”

The first time I tried, I made it through the first chapter and put it down. I am making another attempt this summer because I really like Radner's two short blog posts (here and here) on “Reading Scripture Well”; I now assign them in my college and seminary hermeneutics classes, and I thought I should learn more about the kind of theological reading he gestures toward in these two popular-level essays. I also wanted to consider the possibility that I might be missing something important.

As a NT scholar by trade and a wanna-be historian, I am not predisposed to allegorical interpretation—what Radner calls 'figural reading'—or to a reclamation of Augustine's neoplatonic speculations about time and eternity, which is what Radner seems to be offering. Yet Radner's historical arguments about how the Bible was read through the early modern period (chap 2) make a lot of sense to this outsider, and his insistence on the present reality of God raises questions about the extent to which my fundamental hermeneutical axiom—reading the Bible historically on its own terms in its own historical and literary contexts—defaults to a human-centred approach that brackets God out of the equation. In short, three chapters in, I feel the force of Radner's attempt to dislodge history as the arbiter of meaning, but the ideas are so mind-blowingly different I'm not sure what to do with them. Still, I can get behind a reading approach that claims:

“Good reading takes us further into, not out of, of Scripture. ... The more our reading has us talking about ourselves, and the less about the Scriptures, the less good it is. ... Good reading, by contrast, leads us to put down stakes in the text. The text itself, after all, is God’s self-presentation. It is not us, not our family, our church, our politics, our situation, nor our intellectual or emotional interests. Good reading, therefore, will lead us to linger over words and phrases, to pause on and circle around events, to wonder about figures, to dwell on questions raised in the text, or on its oddities, amazements, even leaden and intolerable normalcies. ... “[R]eal life,” if Scripture is what I have suggested it is, is to be found in, not outside, of the text. If we must provide a homiletic application of a scriptural text – out of pastoral and circumstantial concern – we must rein it in proportionately. No more than one fifth of a sermon, perhaps, should be applicatory; and we should never leave it to the end, as if it were the sermon’s “point.” It isn’t, at least not if one is preaching on the Bible. Any such applicative “message” is a disappointment in the face of God’s Word! Sermons should begin, stay with, and end with Scripture itself. There’s nothing to worry about at that point: God is acting in his Word, say what we will.” - Ephraim Radner, “Reading Scripture Well (Part 1)

I may not get through either book before the fall semester closes in, but these are, so far, the reading highlights of my summer. 

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