Cover Image: Text and Truth

Text and Truth:
Redefining Biblical Theology

Francis Watson (T&T Clark, 1997)

Blurb Review by Ted M. Dorman

Review by Ted M. Dorman

Francis Watson picks up where he left off in his 1994 volume Text, Church and World (reviewed in JETS 40 [1997] 148-150) by defining Biblical theology as "a theological, hermeneutical and exegetical discipline" wherein the "hermeneutical and exegetical disciplines are placed at the disposal of the overriding theological concern." Specifically, he "seeks to dismantle the barriers that at present separate biblical scholarship from Christian theology" (p. vii).

Watson's chief concern is that modern scholarship's division of Biblical interpretation into "three autonomous interpretive communities" (OT studies, NT studies, and systematic theology) is "ideologically motivated" (p. 6) and "systematically distorts their subject matter" (p. 7). For Watson, that subject-matter is the God of the gospel revealed in Jesus Christ, as witnessed to by the Christian canonical Scriptures. To isolate Biblical studies from theological concerns, as is the practice of modern historical-critical methodology, may produce helpful individual insights into the texts but results in an overall falsification of what the Bible is all about.

Following an introductory chapter, Watson divides his work into two parts: "Studies in Theological Hermeneutics" (pp. 33-176) and "The Old Testament in Christological Perspective" (pp. 179-329). The first part seeks to underscore the relationship between the Biblical text and its subject matter. For Watson, there is no truth without text (hence the book's title). Jesus is not found somewhere behind the Biblical text, as per the historical-critical tradition, but rather is inextricably bound up with the Biblical witness. Nor is Jesus merely part of a "narrative" and thus confined to "intratextual" or "fictive" status. Rather, the Biblical narrative points beyond itself to the extratextual history of Jesus (chap. 1). Furthermore, the Biblical narrative speaks with a "single sense," and not a "multiplicity of voices," as per deconstructive literary theories such as those of F. Kermode (chap. 2).

Watson continues his polemic against radical deconstructivism in chap. 3 by affirming "unfashionable concepts" such as "literal sense," "authorial intention," and "objective interpretation." Such "current hermeneutical dogmas" should be rejected not merely for reasons of incoherence, but primarily "because they conflict with the dogmas held to be foundational to orthodox Christian faith, and because, in the light of that conflict, certain inherent problems and implausibilities come to light" (p. 97; emphasis Watson). Having set forth the Augustinian/Anselmian fides quaerens intellectum as his fundamental approach, he nevertheless spends most of the chapter affirming traditional literary theories, such as those of E. D. Hirsch (p. 125 n. 7), by appeals to common-ground arguments rather than the theological a priori he has previously articulated.

The fundamental problem with the modern discipline of Biblical studies, Watson insists in chap. 4, lies not merely in misinterpreting the canonical texts but in attempting to "erase" those texts, in particular the OT. Such "neo-Marcionism" excludes the OT text entirely from the realm of Christian theology (Bultmann being the outstanding example), and seeks to go behind the NT text to find out the discontinuities between Jesus on the one hand and the apostolic witness to Jesus on the other. Historical surveys of Schleiermacher, Harnack, and Bultmann demonstrate that each of these influential German scholars sought to critique and at times dismiss the Biblical texts in light of a priori Enlightenment convictions rather than the Christian canon. For example, Schleiermacher's polemics against the OT were part of his larger program of "de-judaizing of Christian faith" (p. 138) by dismissing the entire idea of textuality, in order to base their theology on "the openness of human nature to immediate experience of God" (p. 140).

Watson's desire to break down the walls between the respective "guilds" of OT studies, NT studies, and theology finds expression in Part 2, "The Old Testament in Christological Perspective." His thesis in chap. 5 is that "the Old Testament comes to us with Jesus and from Jesus, and can never be understood in abstraction from him" (p. 182). He surveys three modern attempts to rescue the OT from scholarly isolation and take seriously its place in the Christian canon, giving higher marks to G. von Rad's emphasis on the typological relationship between the OT and NT than to W. Eichrodt's emphasis on "covenant" or Brevard Child's "canonical criticism."

Chapter 6, "Creation in the Beginning," reflects on the significance of Genesis 1, which posits a foundational, once-for-all beginning of creation as the basis upon which the entire Biblical narrative rests. Genesis 1 thus provides the clear-cut beginning necessary for a properly integrated narrative (i.e. the Biblical canon), as per Aristotle's analysis of the nature of narrative. Creation is an "absolute beginning" (p. 225) and foundation for all that follows, and not a dynamic, ongoing process as per the theology of J. Moltmann. On the other hand, creation is "only a beginning" (p. 225; emphasis Watson) which sets the stage for the divine covenants, and is not a proper basis for a "natural theology" such as that propounded by some in the Reformed tradition and, more recently, by J. Barr (pp. 243-248).

Chapter 7, "In the Image of God," endeavors to demonstrate how a careful historical exegesis of Genesis 1 and 2 can be meaningfully and properly augmented by a careful reading of NT references to Christ as "the image of God' (e.g. 2 Cor 4:4) in order to formulate a theological definition of the image of God that avoids the pitfalls of classical definitions that are overly dependent upon Greek philosophical categories. In this chapter more than any other Watson demonstrates the fruits of a Christological, canonical exegesis that at once pays attention to the historical context of OT texts, and their foreshadowing of God's definitive self-revelation in Jesus Christ: "Jesus therefore discloses what it is to be human, and the Genesis texts are to be understood as prophetic of that event" (p. 300).

The final chapter, "Scripture in Dialogue: A Study in Early Christian Old Testament Interpretation," examines Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho as an example of how Jewish and Christian perspectives on the Jewish Scriptures (also Christian Scriptures in Justin's day) can find significant common ground, but in the end must remain incommensurate, since the difference between Jews and Christians lies not so much in how they exegete individual Hebrew Scripture/OT texts, but in how they relate these texts to Jesus Christ. One somewhat surprising conclusion: for Justin (according to Watson), "a 'high' christology has far deeper and more extensive Old Testament roots than a 'low' one" (p. 324).

Watson's perspective clearly displays affinities to K. Barth's insistence that historical exegesis is only "preliminary" to theological exegesis, and that Jesus Christ is the subject matter of the entire Christian canon. It is therefore not surprising that at times Watson appears to share Barth's tendency to ride roughshod over historical claims of the Biblical text in favor of viewing such stories as "fictive" elements of a narrative that is indeed fundamentally historical but also contains elements that, to be blunt, simply did not happen as portrayed by the Biblical writers (see e.g. his treatment of the transfiguration, pp. 82-88, which Watson views as interpretation rather than as event). But why not on this basis dismiss elements that are clearly theological, such as the objective existence of the devil (which is precisely what Barth did)? Watson's repeated insistence that theological truth is always textually mediated must go one step further and insist, as O. Cullmann did more than 40 years ago over against Barth, that the Biblical text not only mediates but also controls our interpretations of theological truth.

Given this caveat, however, I find in Text and Truth an eminently worthwhile project. Weaknesses in his previous book, pointed out by the JETS review mentioned in the opening paragraph of this review, are for the most part avoided here. And while it is true that some of Watson's statements about "fictive" material within historical narrative are reminiscent of R. Gundry's evaluation of Matthew's account of the Magi (which led to Gundry's departure from the ETS), readers who seek to pursue a more positive integration of OT, NT, and theological studies will do well to heed Watson's message.

©2022 Beginning with Moses. Designed and built by David Turner