Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Shifting Centre

I read a fascinating article today by Margaret Y. MacDonald (the picture is of her) entitled ‘The Shifting Centre: Ideology and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians’. Here is an overview with some comments. If you are interested in the Apostle Paul, or even New Testeament exegesis, then do try to work your way through this rather lengthy post, as I think her article is worth it.

(The article is a chapter in the collection of essays presented in the recent book, Christianity and Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church, ed. Edward Adams and David G. Horrell [London: Westminster John Knox, 2004])

She starts off her analysis by examining the concept of ‘ideology’ in order to examine the ideologies adopted by biblical scholars in their interpretation of 1 Corinthians. The first subheading, ‘The Importance of Baur’ points to the ways in which aspects of Baur’s work are reflected in modern scholarship, even if ‘the ideological basis of some of his assertions would not be considered acceptable by the scholarly community today’ (278). His ideologically driven interpretation of 1 Corinthians is well-known and thus sets the frame for an examination of the way scholars have imported their own ideologies into their interpretation of this letter.

The next major subheading, ‘Paul at the Centre’, overviews how scholars have sought to, consciously or unconsciously, defended the worth and authority of Paul - a matter obviously related to the conviction especially amongst faith communities that Paul’s words are canonical Scripture. Her point is to suggest that it is only ideology that would lead us to assume that Paul is the one to be trusted, the correct one, and that his opponents wrong.

Next comes ‘Christianity at the Centre’. Focusing on the likes of Barrett and Thiselton etc., MacDonald argues that an ideology reflecting a ‘Christianity at the centre’ approach leads interpreters to unduly posit a theological whole upon the letter, or upon the nature of Paul’s opponents or his own strategy in dealing with certain situations. Along with Dale Martin, she argues that the importation of such clearly defined theological systems into the interpretation of this letter rides roughshod over what is a more complex reality. For example, Thiselton’s focus on ‘overrealised eschatology’ becomes the target of criticism. Not only that, she also cites Horsley who, for me at least, controversially, ‘warns strongly against the assumption that Paul and the Corinthians were involved in the religion that we now call Christianity’ (285). This sentence hit me between the eyes! Nevertheless, is positing a theological whole an illegitimate ideology?

Society at the Centre’. MacDonald’s reasonably positive assessment of the contribution of those scholars pushing either a social-scientific approach, or something like it, is qualified by warnings that such focuses tend to forget other important issues in the text. This judgement I find myself in strong agreement with and the social-scientific approach of Asano in his recent work on Galatians for me very clearly outlines the weakness of his methodology, i.e. so much important data was left out of consideration because his methodology couldn’t quite handled it.

The last section, ‘Women at the Centre’ highlights the significant exegetical work done by number of female scholars in relation to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. This is evident not only in the expected passages (e.g. 1 Cor 7), but also in the way the often neglected female voice has been given another hearing – at the Apostle Paul’s expense. For example, MacDonald notes the work of Antoinette Clark Wire’s study, Corinthian Women Prophets, in which the author attempts a robust defence of the Corinthian’s theology over against Paul’s theology, and in particular those of the women prophets and their claim to ‘direct access to resurrected life in Christ from God’s spirit’ (293, citing Wire, 185).

A very thought-provoking article, even if, in time, sober meditation on the texts themselves made dull the edge of some of MacDonald’s concerns and claims. Well worth a read!


At 3/09/2006 10:02 PM, Blogger eddie said...

Surely we can begin with a proposed theological whole, test it against the details of the text, replace it with another more 'fitting' theological whole, or make adjustments to the existing one in light of the details. Or, failing to make this work, we can conclude that it is far more complex, but do so now knowing that it cannot be explained (atleast by our imagination) by a theological whole..?

At 3/10/2006 1:02 AM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Sounded just like Wright, that sentence!

We will always have ideological bias, and so the question becomes, 'is it legitimate?'. Teh inductive approach you mention, I think, is entirely legitimate. However, where this article does help is to make us more aware of our own ideologies, wher we may have been ignorant of them.


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