Francis Watson’s Text and Truth

Francis Watson’s goal in Text and Truth is to argue for the merits of a new “biblical theology.”  His impetus in this is the perception that the separation of theological studies from biblical studies and, within biblical studies, the separation of New Testament studies from Old Testament studies is predicated upon false assumptions and is, in reality, self-limiting and self-repeating.  He argues that these two lines of demarcation (i.e., between theology and biblical studies and between Old and New Testament studies) have effectively removed any concept of text and truth.  Instead, the theologian feels no right to interact with biblical studies in any authoritative and substantial way because that is a separate discipline.  The biblical scholar does not interact in any substantial way with theology.  And the New and Old Testament scholars do not interact with one another.  The result of this is that no concept of biblical theology is achieved and a holistic treatment of scripture never occurs.  Most tragically, however, is the lack of any notion of truth.  The biblical scholar cannot make theological pronouncements and vice versa. Watson argues that these lines of demarcation are ideologically founded and that the wholesale rejection of biblical theology is as unmerited as a wholesale acceptance of it.  He hopes to retain the positive aspects of the biblical theology movement of the mid-twentieth century while rejecting its flaws and thereby arrive at a true biblical theology that will integrate the theological and textual biblical studies (8).

Watson begins by noting that modern biblical studies have created a false dichotomy between the narrative study of the gospels and the historical-critical study of the gospels.  The narrative study is concerned with each gospel writer’s telling of the story.  These narratives are seen as containing fictional elements, but it is not the narrative critic’s job to interact with the text’s historiographical intent (33).  Rather, the redaction scholar is concerned with identifying and elucidating the Markan Jesus or the Lukan Jesus through an evaluation of the gospel narratives.  The historical critical scholar, however, does the work of identifying and stripping away fictional narrative elements in search of the reality that lay behind them (37-38).  These two disciplines are kept separate and seemingly have no real bearing on one another as redaction criticism is considered to deal with a fictionally expressed faith and historical criticism is considered to deal with reality.  Watson’s proposal is that this framework be replaced with a concept of narrative history.

In his attempt to establish a concept of narrative history or biblical historiography, Watson sees historical events as events which are communicated creatively and handed down through tradition to the ages.  There is, however, an historical point of reference that rests behind the fluid, creative, and dynamic attempts at expressing it.  Concerning the life of Jesus, Watson notes that the gospels do not present strict biographies but rather communally accepted articulations of the importance of the Christ event.  Watson sees this as legitimate “history” (52-53).  Thus, the reality of the transcendent nature of the Christ event, not historicity strictly speaking, is the important issue here.  Furthermore, the gospels do not merely point back to a past event.  Rather, in their writing, the gospels interact with the Christ event that is past, present, and future (53).  Watson seems to be saying here that this notion of temporal fluidity and the timeless conception of the Christ event explains the variance of some elements, chronological and otherwise, within the gospels.  Furthermore, he claims that the Christ event is “stabilized” through the transmission of the community’s past, present, and future interaction with it to writing (54).

Watson next attempts to combat “the polarizing of history and fiction” (59).  This, of course, is crucial to his stated goal of undermining the assumptions that would draw such radical distinctions between a redactive and a historical critical approach to the scripture.  He states that the gospels are emplotted, that they contain the beginning, middle, and ending aspects of a plot that is moved along points of reference.  That is, the gospels are structured in such a way as to tell a story that has points of reference to an historic event and that is not to be evaluated solely by the cold eye of historical verification.  Watson, in facts, argues against this radical distinction between history and fiction by noting that an historiographical writing may legitimately employ both elements (history and fiction) in the construction of its emplotted flow (55-57).  He speaks to the issue of the fictional elements of the gospel narratives by arguing that there is purpose for such elements in historiography.  He appeals to Ricoeur’s notion that fiction is often applied historiogaphically in the description of epochal events which help a community achieve self-understanding (61-63).

I find that I am highly sympathetic to Watson’s intentions but nonetheless wonder if  his assertions are not as ideologically motivated as the lines of demarcation he is seeking to remove.  His analysis of the disparaging state of biblical studies in which redaction critics study the narratives with no concern for historicity and historical critical scholars seek out the reality, or the history, of the text with no apparent concern for the narrative elements is commendable.  However, in the final analysis his proposed solution for destroying the radical dichotomy currently being drawn between real history and false fiction depends upon the truthfulness of these categories and not merely their existence.  In other words, it is possible to challenge the assumption that there are fictional elements at all.  If this is done, of course, then this attempted synthesis of these two elements through an analysis of gospel emplottments and other structures is unnecessary.  And what reason, truly, does Watson have for supposing these assumptions concerning the fictional elements to be true?  His tone would suggest something closely resembling a mere assumption that this must be the case.

The overarching question is the question of historicity.  Try as he may to downplay and explain creatively the presence and viability of fictional elements, Watson never adequately addresses why we must agree with this theory in the first place as he never enters into dialogue with apologetic endeavors which assert the contrary.  As such, Text and Truth is itself founded on ideological premises that may themselves be rejected.

The implications of this discussion on the preaching task are fairly obvious.  Is the preacher proclaiming truth or fiction?  May he have relative confidence in the historical reliability of his assertions or must he merely assent to be part of the creative flow of historiofiction.  I am not attempting to minimize Watson here.  Given the truthfulness of the assertion that the narratives contain fictional elements, Watson’s theory of handling them is ingenious.  However, I reject the truthfulness of that assertion and, consequently, the construct he erects on that assumption.

Watson next turns his attention to the question of how it is that a finite text may be interpreted infinitely.  In this discussion, he interacts with those who find the answer to this question in a supposed “radical indeterminancy within the text itself” (74).  This is a postmodern construct which believes that the gospel writers intentionally crafted their gospels in a form that will not allow an ultimate interpretation.  Thus, they share the nature of parables that are intended to blind the hearer or reader.  Consequently, the authors intend to tease, as it were, the reader into an unending interaction with the text that never reaches a final interpretative destination.

Watson’s response to this is largely refreshing.  He points out that the genre of gospel is inherently unlike the genre of parable.  Gospels by their nature proclaim something and this proclamation does not harmonize with any radical textual indeterminancy.  The gospels proclaim Christ and, in fact, intend to do so (73-77).  This means that they cannot be treated as parables.

Furthermore, Watson accuses purveyors of this position of accepting gnostic tendencies.  Gnosticism draws a distinction between “carnal” and “spiritual” interpretations and thereby opens a door for allegory.  This is seemingly what has happened in this stance of radical indeterminancy.  Furthermore, this view is in danger of missing the point of the gospels and erecting an illegitimate (and illegitimately complex) structure on insufficient, scant evidence.  Simply put, there is no real reason to treat the gospels as harbingers of uncertainty and tools for interpretative teasing (79-80).  In summation, any system finds a radical uncertainty in the nature of the gospel writings themselves has misunderstood the intent and nature of a gospel and has opened a Pandora’s box of gnostic subjectivism and error.

Watson ends his discussion of these purported gnostic tendencies by pointing to Mark’s account of the transfiguration (83-88).  In the story, Peter, James, and John are shown the nature and glory of Christ.  What was hidden was revealed.  Watson sees in this a response to those who would argue that the gospels are sources of indeterminancy and hopelessness.  He argues instead that the transfiguration is the watershed moment of Mark’s gospel for it showed Peter, James, and John that truth, meaning, and purpose has been and can be revealed.

The second section of Watson’s book is actually a brilliant rebuttal of a postmodern hermeneutic of despair.  Against theories of radical indeterminancy, Watson replies quite simply that those who espouse such views have forgotten or overlooked the nature of a gospel and have run off in unjustifiable directions with a palsied hermeneutical approach.  While the previous section of the book still raises questions as to the question of how and in what sense, in Watson’s mind, the gospels reveal anything trustworthy, it must nonetheless be admitted that his closing of the door on postmodern hermeneutical despair is more than admirable.

The preacher’s task is inextricably interwoven with the proposition that he may know what the scriptures in fact say.  Watson’s arguments here provide a positive tool towards that end.  If the postmodern hermeneutic of despair or suspicion is true, the preacher may never definitively offer any word of hope.  He may never be sure of the truthfulness of his own proclamation.  He may never say with any assurance, “Thus saith the Lord.”  Instead, he is condemned to a lifelong game of interpretative guesswork and homiletical “shots in the dark.”  Thus, Watson’s arguments are crucial to the preaching task.

In the third chapter of Truth and Text, Watson seeks to criticize a postmodern paradigm of interpretation.  He mentions three contentions of this paradigm.  First of all, there is no single meaning of a text.  Second, meaning is determined by the reader and not by the author.  Lastly, theological interpretations can claim to be no better or worse than others but must instead commit themselves to an ongoing, pluralistic, interpretative dialogue (95-96).  Watson states that these three premises are deficient in many ways (97).

He argues that writing is an act with an intention.  It intends to communicate something and therefore must be understood if the intention is to be fulfilled (98-103).  He argues further that the gospels may be understood as having single meanings which include a variety of communicative components.  This meaning is bound to the words of the text.  Watson realizes that there is a problem with this view in the fact that a single passage may be translated in many different ways and may be accepted differently by different people.  This, however, is no ultimate reason to reject a belief in the presence of a central meaning of a text.  Rather, instead of accepting the postmodern tendency to celebrate these different translations and interpretations as being noble in and of themselves and as serving as proofs of indeterminancy in the text, Watson points out that it is the job of the interpreter to weigh the interpretation and the evidence behind them in order to see which is best (112-113).

Furthermore, Watson argues for the necessity of an objectivity by which such a process of interpretative clarification may be verified.  Objectivity, for instance, frees us from assuming a necessary particularity behind an interpretation.  We may, in other words, appeal to criteria outside of our own social and cultural environment as reasons for our interpretation (113-114).  Second, objectivity saves us from an unending interpretative ambiguity.  Third, objectivity assumes the presence of criteria outside of our own opinions that will help us in judging the merits of various interpretative positions (114-115).

Watson next contends for an understanding of interpretation in which the author’s intent is seen as the meaning of a passage.  He stresses, however, that this intent is often hard to achieve.  Furthermore, more than just the mere defining of words is necessary.  Watson argues that we may know authorial intent because of “the reality of institutional continuities” that allow us to understand the text and its meaning (115-118).   This also implies that the application of a text to today is necessarily to be a concern of the interpreter (123).  Lastly, regardless of specific, contextualized interpretations of a text, the actual words and meaning of a text, or a text’s “objective interpretation,” must be given priority (123-124).  Watson argues this ostensibly in an attempt to save the text from a pluralistic interpretative relativity.

In all, Watson’s assertions regarding the single meaning of a text, the establishing of meaning on the basis of the author’s and not the interpreter’s assertions, and the dangers of an unfettered pluralistic relativity are wise.  The heavy emphasis that he places on objectivity and the possibility and need of recognizing its existence is crucial to the entire question of postmodernism.  By arguing in favor of the existence of objectivity, Watson is closing the door on unrestrained existentialist approaches to interpretation.

His treatment of the meaning of a text is interesting.  I believe he makes an extremely valid and thought provoking point in his argument that the continuity of communal institutions is a harbinger for meaning.  This provides an additional helpful aspect to Ridderbos’s and Erickson’s discussion of meaning.

The modern preacher will benefit from Watson’s work in this regard.  Once again, Watson provides a framework whereby the preacher need not resign himself to hermeneutical uncertainty.  He may argue, on the basis of objective criteria, that his interpretation is valid.  In polemical preaching he may argue on this basis that his interpretation is preferable to another.  And, on the basis of Watson’s exaltation of the meaning of the text as it stands independent of modern contextualized reinterpretation, the preacher may claim that there is a true meaning in the midst of competing cultural interpretations.  This last claim, however, should be made cautiously and in full recognition of our own presuppositions and propensities for culturally conditioned interpretation.

In Watson’s fourth chapter, the last of the first section of the book, he defines and interacts with neo-Marcionism.  He derives this name from Marcion and the controversies that surrounded him.  Among other things, Marcion asserted that the Old Testament should be rejected as part of the Christian Bible.  Watson contends that neo-Marcionism was advocated by Schleiermacher, Harnack, and Bultmann.  These three German theologians rejected the Old Testament in favor of a more direct experience with God (127-128).

Schleiermacher rejected the importance of scripture in favor of a direct experience of redemption.  Thus, an evaluation of scripture was largely unnecessary (131).  When Schleiermacher did deal with scripture, his hermeneutic was obsessed with finding within it a picture of Jesus’ experience with God.  He summarily disregarded and rejected those portions of the New Testament that he found problematic or unuseful to his a priori assumptions (132).

His hermeneutic was essentially psychological.  That is, he interacted with texts psychologically and not through an evaluation of the words of the text.  This is a basically subjective approach to hermeneutics.  Scripture, to Schleiermacher, is important only insofar as it reveals to us the personality of the Jesus with whom we interact.  The specific form of the text is unimportant (136-137).  Most importantly, Schleiermacher rejected the Old Testament as not being inspired.  He also claimed that Christianity has nothing to do with Judaism other than a purely historical relationship (138).  Furthermore, in keeping with his own approach to Christianity, Schleiermacher rejected the Old Testament as being cold text whereas the New Testament, by revealing to us the personality of Jesus, represents experience with God (140).

Harnack likewise rejected the Old Testament.  He approved of Marcion’s idea that the Old Testament is a stifling tradition which is the antithesis of a direct, dynamic encounter with Christ (141-142).  Furthermore, to Harnack, the Church’s acceptance of the Old Testament revealed an insufficient appreciation of the newness of Christ (143).  Watson pictures Harnack as carrying on and continuing the work of Marcion for twentieth century liberalism (143-144).

Harnack summarized the essence of Christianity in three categories:  “the kingdom of God and its coming,” “God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul,” and “the higher righteousness and the commandment of love” (147).  He sought to remove Jesus from his Jewish context and stressed the centrality of the individually redemptive work of Jesus and the believer’s experience with Him for the Christian faith (147).  Harnack also called on twentieth century Protestants to correct the mistakes of Luther and the Reformers and expel the Old Testament from the canon (150).

Rudolph Bultmann also argued that the Old Testament was not inspired though it did have some importance in helping us understand ourselves and the nature of humanity.  He downplayed any relationship between the events of Israel’s history and the life of Christ.  He also downplayed the importance of Old Testament messianic prophecies on the basis that they were not useful to the modern individual (154-155).   Like Marcion and Harnack, Bultmann  elevated experience with Christ as the criterion by which everything was to be judged.  Thus, the Old Testament, in his estimation, was not authoritative like the New Testament (156).

It was “pragmatically useful,” but not essential to the Church (166).  Even the New Testament was demoted in importance by Bultmann.  It was, famously, “demythologized” by him.  Furthermore, its words and teachings were considered unimportant by him.  Instead, Bultmann saw the chief value of the New Testament in terms of its picture of the passion of Christ.  This represented to Bultmann a picture of radical dependence on God and was, in his mind, the basis of a direct experience with God on the part of the believer that serves as the core of Christianity (168).

Watson’s treatment of Marcion, Schleiermacher, Harnack, and Bultmann is meant to show that the modern assumption undergirding the independent and unrelated scholarly studies of the Old and New Testaments (Watson’s “second line of demarcation”) has an ancient and not too noble history.  It is predicated upon a false understanding of the nature of the testaments and will potentially leave the door open for further theological fallacies such as those exhibited by these three German theologians.  At the heart of each of these men’s systems is a basic misunderstanding of text and truth.  Text may offer some practical insights, but truth itself has no real correlation to its content or makeup.  Thus, text may be dealt with haphazardly, violently, or not at all, and truth will be none the worse for it.  This, Watson contends, is a fallacy that lies behind the separation of these disciplines.

I believe that Watson does an admirable job in this first section of his book in arguing for a new articulation of a biblical theology.  He discussion of fiction and history, in my opinion, leaves much to be desired and is the weakest of his arguments.  However, his consideration of textual indeterminancy, objectivity, authorial intent, reader-response hermeneutics, pluralism, and the philosophical underpinnings of a rejection of the Old Testament are handled masterfully and forcefully.  Thus, it can be said that Watson has succeeded overall in laying the groundwork for an argument for biblical theology and in combating the pervasive and damaging affects of postmodernism on the pursuit of truth today.

Today’s preacher must consider Watson’s contentions.  Postmodernism, like all movements, inevitably passes from the detailed verbage of the scholarly to the unevaluated assumptions of the vernacular.  This means that difficult questions concerning the nature of truth and the nature of text are currently being and will continue to be asked by those within our parishes.  Furthermore, the relationship of the testaments is a perennial question that must be responded to.

Preaching itself will, I believe, be positively impacted by a close consideration of Watson’s arguments.  As stated above, the confidence and assurance that a pastor will preach with will prove to be dependent upon the confidence he has in his subject matter.  Can the preacher proclaim the text as truth?  This seems to be the central question.  Watson answers the question, albeit not always in ways that make me comfortable, with a “yes.”  In this he is correct.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *