Sailhamer’s Biblical Theology, I

In his book Introduction to Old Testament Theology, A Canonical Approach, John Sailhamer outlines four contrasting approaches to doing Scriptural theology (in this case OT theology). These four contrasts are:

1. Text or event;
2. Criticism or canon;
3. Descriptive or confessional;
4. Diachronic or synchronic.

I. Text vs. Event

What does Sailhamer mean by these terms? First, let’s look at text vs. event. Sailhamer writes:

Does an OT theology focus its attention on the scriptural text of the OT itself, or is the text primarily a witness to the act of God’s self-revelation in the events recorded by Scripture? […] We will maintain in the following discussion that while professing to be text-centered in their approach, evangelical biblical theologians sometimes treat the text of Scripture as a means of getting at what they perceive to be the real locus of God’s revelation-the events in the history of Israel or the religious ideals that lie behind the text.

While we may think that we have a clear picture of events, what we have in fact is the events selected for presentation by the author according to a narrative strategy. Sailhamer says:

The recounting of events in the narrative is not intended to direct the reader’s attention outside the text but rather within the text and to the narrative world depicted there. The reader, as audience, is to understand the meaning of the events through the author’s development of the plot structure and characterization of the narrative. Thus divine revelation may be thought of as lying within the narrative text of Scripture as a function of the meaning of the events in their depiction.

I would note that you hear this in sermons all the time. The preacher is often not seeking to explain what the author intended, the narrative strategy, and so on, but rather wants to talk about what the character was up to in his estimation, what else was going on back then, things like that. It is a subtle difference but one with large ramifications. I think it springs mainly from ignorance about what a book is, what an author does, etc. In other words, the Biblical authors have already interpreted the events for us in their writings, they do not present us with the events in order for us to interpret what the event meant. We are rather to focus on what the text says the event meant. Sailhamer explains that we often lack a text theory and describes what a text is:

By its very nature a narrative text is something that does not project itself on us as such. When reading a text we are not constantly reminded of the fact that we are looking at words on a page, just as in watching a movie we are rarely conscious of looking at light on a screen. The function of a narrative text is to be a vehicle for telling a historical story.

He provides an example:

A photograph of a tree is a good example of the distinction between a text and the event depicted in it. A photograph is a representation of a tree. It represents the tree accurately and realistically, yet it does not have bark and leaves, nor is the sky behind the tree in the photograph a real sky. Nevertheless the actual bark and leaves of the real tree are represented in the photograph and so is the real sky…To say that a photograph only represents the tree but is not actually the tree, does not mean that the tree never existed or that the photograph is inaccurate because it only shows one side of the tree.

Sailhamer has many other helpful things to say on this subject, but let me skip ahead. He says:

The effect of overlooking the text of Scripture is favor of a focus on the events of Israel’s history can often be a “biblical” theology that is little more than a philosophy of history, an exegetical method that is set on expounding the meaning of the events lying behind Scripture rather than those depicted in Scripture itself.

Needless to say, Sailhamer chooses a text based approach rather than an events based one.

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