Sven Ensminger on N.T. Wright, Karl Barth, and the Aufhebung of Religion

In my review of German-language-sphere scholars’ essays in God and the Faithfulness of Paul, I regrettably overlooked Sven Ensminger’s essay “Barth, Wright, and Theology,” having wrongly inferred from his international education and English publications that he was not a German-language-sphere scholar. While a bit embarrassing for me, this error has the upside that he is now receiving a post of his own!

In terms of content, Ensminger’s chapter provides a concise sketch of Barth’s treatment of revelation, religion, and Christology with some points of comparison with N.T. Wright. It seeks to contribute to the question of the relationship between biblical studies and theology (658), and gives particular attention to the following question: “to what extent can God be bracketed out of theological reflection about a key figure of the Christian church such as Paul in order to consider him as a historical figure with his socio-political background?” (p.656). At certain points Ensminger suggests that Wright has not understood Barth correctly, and, more importantly, he thinks that Barth offers insights that need to be taken into account if one wants to build a theological argument. With respect to his treatment of Barth and Wright on religion, the following quotation struck me as especially central to Ensminger’s line argument: “The problem for Wright therefore seems to be one that reduces religion to its historical and social dimension. Barth’s point, however, is that religion has to be understood within the framework of theology.”

There are two aspects of Ensminger’s essay that I regard as particularly noteworthy from the perspective of a translator. The first is his discussion of the translation of the German term Aufhebung.  Whereas the first edition of Barth’s Church Dogmatics had given 1/2 § 17 the title “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion”, Garrett Green regards this as “an egregious error” and “the most important reason” (GFP 653 n. 27) for undertaking his new translation of this key section entitled The Revelation of God and the Sublimation of Religion. Ensminger heartily agrees with Garrett’s criticism of the translation “abolition.” Interestingly, however, Ensminger chooses to leave Aufhebung untranslated in his chapter (unless I missed a case in which he translated it), while rendering aufheben and aufhob with “displace” and “displaced” (p. 654).

As a scholar and translator, this discussion is important to me for two reasons. First, as someone who has profited from reading Karl Barth and those who have been influenced by him (especially Wilfried Joest, Eberhard Jüngel, and Colin Gunton), I am interested in the specific question of how this term should be translated in the work of Karl Barth. Secondly, as a translator of German New Testament scholarship, I am even more interested in how this term should be translated in the authors I translate. This, however, is not straightforward, for even if Ensminger is right about Barth’s usage, I cannot necessarily assume that my authors are using it in the same way Barth (or Hegel etc). For example, how should I translate it when Michael Wolter entitles his heading for Luke 6.27-38: The Aufhebung of the Principle of Ethical Reciprocity? Should I translate it with “Sublimation”? Perhaps. Or should I use “Displacement”? Perhaps. Or would “annulment” or “sublation” be better? Perhaps. For better or for worse, I used “nullification,” and for better or worse it is too late to change this! Still, as a way of shedding further light on my own experience of translation and its challenges, let me conclude this post by briefly shedding some light on my thought process in reaching this decision. In my translation of Aufhebung in Wolter, I knew a) that “abolition” was potentially a problematic translation and b) that various authors used this term in specific and loaded ways, but c) I was somewhat uncertain about how exactly Wolter was using the term, and d) I did not feel like I had a complete overview of what the best options might be to choose from. It is true that I considered “sublation”, but I found this term to be a bit too opaque (which often evokes the displeasure of readers), and I was also worried that it might convey a more technical meaning and more loaded associations than Wolter intended and that the associations with Hegel might be undesired. Still, perhaps these considerations should have been outweighed by others? Or perhaps this should have been one of the issues that I discussed at greater length with Michael Wolter (I cannot remember whether or not this was one of the specific issues that I asked Wolter about, but if it was, it did not lead to a change to my translation). I do remember that my co-translator Christoph Heilig alerted me to important dimensions of the term’s meaning, but even in light of his clarifying comments, I retained “Nullification”, regarding it as a term that conveyed that something continued to exist but no longer had the same status or power as it previously held.

I will have to give further thought about whether to translate this term with “sublimation,” “sublation,” “annulment,” “nullification,” or “displacement” in future translations, and I am certainly open to suggestions on how best to proceed!

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Oda Wischmeyer on the “Grandness” of N.T. Wright with a Review of God and the Faithfulness of Paul

Over the last few weeks I have enjoyed reading through God and the Faithfulness of Paul (edited by Christoph Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt, and Michael F. Bird), which contains many excellent responses to N.T. Wright‘s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Hence, after providing a key excerpt—in English and German—from Oda Wischmeyer (Eng) on the “grandness” of N.T. Wright, this post will also include some brief comments on the chapters written by German-language-sphere scholars. On another note, readers of this blog may be interested in participating in the 2016 Mainz Summer School in German (and) Theology.

I. Oda Wischmeyer on the “Grandness” of N.T. Wright

I both profited from and greatly enjoyed co-translating (with Christoph Heilig) Oda Wischmeyer‘s chapter in God and the Faithfulness of Paul. What I found so remarkable was the honest and profound way that she was able to interact with both N.T. Wright’s work and her own academic tradition (cf. Christoph Heilig’s comments on Wischmeyer’s essay). Unlike many of us—whether we are Wright’s adoring admirers, sharp critics, or somewhere in between—Wischmeyer seemed to be entirely comfortable in her own shoes when discussing Wright and his work, so that she was able both to reflect on her own tradition with great insight and self-awareness and to draw out striking aspects of N.T. Wright’s work in a way that was both appreciative and critical in the best sense of the word. I don’t know why exactly this is the case. Perhaps it is because Prof. Wischmeyer herself is a senior scholar who has nothing to prove. Or perhaps it is simply because her hermeneutical approach has given her better tools for observing and reflecting on what is going on with Wright and in her own tradition. Whatever the reason, I found the tone and content of her essay to be both refreshing and illuminating. Let me turn then to my key excerpt, alternating between the English translation and the German original for those who are learning—or seeking to revive their—German:

GFP 74: Exactly one hundred years after the publication of Wilhelm Bousset’s great Paul article in the first edition of Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, N. T. Wright in his two-volume work Paul and the Faithfulness of God has again struck that sonorous tone which one could probably last hear in Germany in the the Pauline research of the history of religion school. …

Genau hundert Jahre nach dem Erscheinen des großen Paulus-Artikels von Wilhelm Bousset in der ersten Auflage der “Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart” hat N.T. Wright in seinem zweiteiligen Werk „Paul and the Faithfulness of God“ wieder jenen klangvollen Ton angeschlagen, den man in Deutschland wohl zuletzt in der Paulusforschung der Religionsgeschichtlichen Schule hören konnte…

GFP 74: At the first reading of Wright, it is the perception of the lofty tone, the liveliness of the historical narration and methodological discussion, and finally the certainty, elegance, and joy in the details of the presentation that excites an exegete who comes from the Bultmann school. …

Es ist die Wahrnehmung des hochgestimmten Tones, der Lebendigkeit der historischen Erzählung wie der methodischen Diskussion und schließlich der Sicherheit, Eleganz und Detailfreude der Darstellung, die eine Exegetin, die aus der Bultmannschule kommt, bei der ersten Lektüre von Wright begeistert. …

GFP 75: Wright writes today as Bousset … wrote a hundred years ago and as one does not write in contemporary German-language exegesis. …

Wright schreibt heute, wie Bousset … vor hundert Jahren schrieb und wie in der zeitgenössischen deutschsprachigen Exegese nicht geschrieben wird. …

GFP 76: For “German” ears or, more specifically, for a hermeneutical perception from the German-language exegetical tradition it is first—this deserves to be repeated once more—Wright’s tone or style that demands our full attention. …

Für „deutsche“ Ohren bzw. für eine hermeneutische Wahrnehmung aus der deutschsprachigen exegetischen Tradition ist es – es sei noch einmal wiederholt – zuerst der Ton oder der Stil Wrights, der alle Aufmerksamkeit beansprucht. …

GFP 76: Behind the pages of Wright we hear Handel’s music and Shakespeare’s language and we might not only be impressed by the force and energy of the presentation, but even saddened, or at least discontent, that we ourselves have lost this tone so completely and can no longer rhetorically orchestrate “grandness.”

Wir hören hinter den Seiten Wrights Händels Musik und Shakespeares Sprache und sind unter Umständen nicht nur beeindruckt von der Wucht und Energie der Darstellung, sondern auch betrübt oder mindestens unzufrieden, dass uns selbst dieser Ton so ganz abhandengekommen ist und wir „Größe“ nicht mehr rhetorisch instrumentieren können.

GFP 76: Or we react critically and regard this tone as too pious, too triumphalistic, too self-assured, not analytical enough—depending on our own academic background.

Oder wir reagieren kritisch und halten diesen Ton für zu fromm, zu triumphalistisch, zu selbstgewiss, zu wenig analytisch – je nach unserer eigenen akademischen Prägung.

GFP 76: Precisely these signals should be observed hermeneutically.

Gerade diese Signale gilt es hermeneutisch aufzufangen.

II. Review of Chapters by German-Language-Sphere Scholars

* For the complete table of contents, see here.

In “Paul and the Faithfulness of God among Pauline Theologies” Benjamin Schliesser (Eng) effectively situates Wright’s contribution in relation to the Pauline theologies of Bultmann, Dunn, Schreiner, Wolter, and Schnelle, displaying a remarkable gift of synthesis (cf. also his 2013 German article).

In “N.T. Wright’s Biblical Hermeneutics” Oda Wischmeyer (Eng) discusses both the history and present situation of German-language Pauline scholarship and the biblical hermeneutics of N.T. Wright.

In “Wright’s Version of Critical Realism” Andreas Losch offers a valuable discussion of “critical realism” in relation to the works of Ian Barbour, Bernard Lonergan, Ben F. Meyer, and N.T. Wright. Whether or not his thesis that Wright’s “critical realism” was initially developed with respect to Barbour and only associated with Lonergan/Meyer secondarily is correct (Wright rejects it [p. 718]), I found this chapter to be a helpful presentation of different versions of “critical realism” and benefited from Losch’s own assessment of the value and limitations of this approach.

In “Historical Methodology” Theresa Heilig and Christoph Heilig (Eng) provide a careful discussion of abduction, inference to the best explanation, and Bayesian confirmation, which includes a systematic analysis of the crucial issues in the debate between Barclay and Wright over whether Paul is criticizing the Roman empire (pp. 145-148)

In “Wright’s Paul and the Paul of Acts” Eve-Marie Becker (Eng) argues from the perspective of recent advances in historiography that Wright should have taken greater account of Acts as a source for Paul, suggesting, inter alia, that such an approach would have preventing him from problematically failing to incorporate Paul’s activities as miracle worker into his overall portrayal of Paul (pp. 160-161). In some respects her argument reminded me of perspectives advanced in Benjamin White’s important book.

In “N.T. Wright’s Narrative Approach” Joel R. White provides a sympathetic presentation and defense of much of what Wright is doing (e.g. he defends “the existence of a common first-century Jewish metanarrative highlighting God’s faithfulness to Israel in spite of her ‘ongoing exile'”), while also criticizing Wright at specific points (e.g. his treatment of apocalyptic language in relation to the notion of cosmic cataclysm, pp. 198-199). Significantly, at certain points White made me feel the force of Wright’s vision to a greater extent than Wright himself has done!

In “N.T. Wright’s Understanding of Justification and Redemption” (trans. Lars Kierspel), Peter Stuhlmacher both challenges key elements of Wright’s interpretation (e.g. the validity of his controlling narrative; cf. John BarclayAlexandra Brown, and Chris Tilling [part I]; but see also Joel R. White’s defense of this metanarrative) and, perhaps more importantly, provides a compact and eloquent presentation of his own views on sacrifice and justification in critical dialogue with Wright (cf. Christoph Heilig’s comments on Stuhlmacher’s essay).

In “God and His Faithfulness in Paul” Torsten Jantsch (Eng) both presents a very helpful discussion of the history of research on God in Paul and compactly outlines aspects of the “concept of God” in Romans in critical dialogue with N.T. Wright (cf. also here). In my judgment Jantsch’s chapter would be an excellent place to start for anyone interested in recent (German) research on God (in Paul). It complements well Jochen Flebbe’s fine monograph on God in Romans.

In “Demythologizing Apocalyptic?” Jörg Frey (Eng) provides both an extensive discussion of recent perspectives on apocalyptic and a hard-hitting critique of Wright’s treatment of apocalyptic, which he regards as a “neutralizing” or “taming” of apocalyptic. In particular, Frey stresses that there is no need to deny that Paul drew on mythological concepts such as the idea of an end of the world and personally reckoned with the return of Christ during his lifetime (p. 526; cf. Joel R. White’s comments on pp. 198-199; cf. also Paula Fredriksen; Larry Hurtado). In his lengthy response Wright emphasizes the extent of their agreement (744-745, 748), differentiates between 6 forms of apocalyptic (pp. 745-748), denies the charge of neutralizing/taming (751), and responds to their primary disagreement about whether or not Paul’s “end-of-the-world” language is concerned with the end of the world as well as the relationship between this question and the early Christian conviction that Jesus the Messiah would return from heaven (748-754).

In “The Faithfulness of God and Its Effects on Faithful Living” Volker Rabens investigates Tom Wright’s portrayal of Paul’s ethics. In addition to providing a valuable discussion of Wright’s treatment of “plight” and “solution”, Rabens develops an especially perceptive critique that warns against Wright’s tendency to give pride of place to cognitive renewal and presses Wright to give greater attention to relational transformation and, more specifically, to “the transforming and empowering transferal by the Spirit into loving relationships to the divine and the community of faith” (p. 577; cf. Wright’s response on 729, 762 and 766).

In “Barth, Wright, and Theology” Sven Ensminger provides a concise sketch of Barth’s treatment of revelation, religion, and Christology with some points of comparison with N.T. Wright. Ensminger seeks to contribute to the question of the relationship between biblical studies and theology (658), and gives particular attention to the following question: “to what extent can God be bracketed out of theological reflection about a key figure of the Christian church such as Paul in order to consider him as a historical figure with his socio-political background?” (p.656). See also my post Sven Ensminger on N.T. Wright, Karl Barth, and the Aufhebung of Religion.

In “Evangelism and the Mission of the Church” Eckhard J. Schnabel tackles a range of topics related to evangelism and mission, including a) a challenge to Wright’s suggestion that Paul wanted to visit places “where Caesar’s power was the strongest” (p. 688), b) the interpretation of Gal 2:7-9 (691-692), c) the validity of the language of “conversion” (692-696; but cf. 759), d) the meaning of gospel (796; but cf. 729), and e) a critique of Wright’s alleged repetition of caricatures of missionaries (700-704; but cf. 757-758).

Finally, if I could mention only one of the many fine essays by English-language-sphere scholars—I realize, of course, that some of the scholars could be classified in both groups—I would highlight Gregory Sterling‘s chapter “Wisdom or Foolishness? The Role of Philosophy in the Thought of Paul”. Sterling shows genuine appreciation for N.T. Wright’s treatment of philosophy, while suggesting, inter alia, that Wright has not given sufficient attention to the later Platonic tradition and specifically to what we call Middle Platonism. Among other observations, I found Sterling’s discussion of prepositional metaphysics to be especially illuminating (cf. here). More generally, I found his chapter to be a very helpful introduction to recent scholarship on philosophy and early Christianity, and I will certainly return to it (for N. T. Wright’s very positive response to Sterling’s essay, see p. 754-756).

For more posts on GFP, see here and here.

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Echoes and Empire Criticism: Christoph Heilig on Hays, Barclay, and Wright/Elliott

This post falls under one of my favorite categories on this blog, namely “German scholars”. The purpose of this category is to introduce German scholars and their research to the English-speaking world. Each post will consist of (I) an excerpt (or several excerpts) from a publication submitted by the German author her/himself and (II) some biographical-bibliographical information about the scholar in question.

Today’s German scholar is Christoph Heilig (cf. here) of the University of Zürich, with whom I have worked closely this year (cf. here) on our co-translations of Michael Wolter’s commentary on Luke for the BMSEC series and Oda Wischmeyer‘s wonderful essay in God and the Faithfulness of Paul: A Critical Examination of the Pauline Theology of N.T. Wright (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, Forthcoming 2015).

I have asked Heilig to send me three excerpts from his 2015 book Hidden Criticism? The Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-Imperial Subtext in Paul, which I read with great profit with regard to its content and with great appreciation for the skill with which he translated his original German manuscript.

I. Echoes and Empire Criticism

On Hays

So what can we conclude on this basis? First, the set of criteria invites the uncritical interpreter to overemphasise certain factors since, in part, Hays’s criteria are only sub-factors of other criteria, and they should not be used as separate touchstones since this would yield an unrealistic result. For example, one could get the impression that it is correct to treat “Satisfaction” and “Volume” as two different arguments – although “Satisfaction” cannot be determined without analysing its subordinate aspects. Second, there is the danger of underemphasising the aspect of “Satisfaction.” Most exegetes probably are not aware of the fact that this factor makes up half (!) of the overall plausibility of an echo because it is only one of seven tests in Hays’s list. Third, another danger in using Hays’s criteria is that parts of the relevant data could be overlooked since the criteria are spread out rather chaotically across the two large factors in Bayes’s theorem and defined rather vaguely. To give just one example: How do we know that we have really covered all the relevant ground to determine the crucial factor of the background plausibility? How do we know the criteria Hays suggested do not leave important gaps in the evaluation of the data? Related to this, fourth, is the problem that the consequences of failing and fulfilling a test are unclear. The criteria function cumulatively, and what is missing in one area in terms of plausibility can be counterbalanced by another. Without a control mechanism, this becomes quite an arbitrary way of weighing evidence.

In light of all of this, it does not seem advisable to use Hays’s criteria as a methodologically sound way to identify echoes. To be sure, it is possible to come to well-founded conclusions on their basis (conclusions that agree with an inference in terms of Bayes), but in these cases it is not the set of criteria itself which guarantees the success, but their wise use, which attributes the correct significance to each of them. The danger of such a methodological procedure is that intuitive decisions, which are made in advance, are sanctioned afterwards by “tests” which have the appearance of scientific method.

On Barclay

When Barclay emphasises that for Paul the real frontier is a cosmic battle, this is probably correct. It would be wrong to negate this and to try to attribute this role to the Roman Empire. Instead, the really important question is whether Paul’s perception of everyday reality was multi-layered or not. Just because he would have agreed with Barclay that the most important conflict is the one between sin and the Spirit, does not mean that it does not affect ordinary decisions and behaviour on a lower level. The foundational conflict in Gal 5:17, for example, is followed in 5:19–26 by very concrete expressions of this battle. Similarly, the book of Acts gives us a good impression of the various local complications of Paul’s mission through his contemporaries, and nevertheless, without further explanation, he is able to say in 1 Thess 2:18 that it was Satan who hindered him from visiting the church. Hence, it would be wrong to say that these “ordinary” things were only peripheral to Paul. The concrete, contemporaneous circumstances do not just float around in space without evaluation just because Paul has a cosmic perspective. Rather, he interprets the events and conditions confronting him within such a wider framework.

We thus have to argue, against Barclay, that Paul’s concrete judgements of specific contemporaneous phenomena as expressions of cosmic forces result from his theological interpretation of the world and do not contradict it at all. On the contrary, if we assume the latter, we should also expect the former, wherever contemporary figures claim roles (saviour of the world etc.) that are attributed to other persons in the divine drama.

On Wright/Elliott

The implicit presupposition of Wright and Elliott seems to be: “If Paul had had free hand, he would have formulated his criticism more openly.” This assumes that the subtext is not an effective tool for persuasion. But is the use of subtext really only explicable in terms of restricting the “actual” opinion? My approach challenges the idea that using the subtext is a kind of second class level of communication necessitated by oppressive circumstances.

This claim is demonstrated – of all things – by the method which the proponents of a subtext-hypothesis adduce: Hays’s scriptural “echoes.” It is astonishing that Wright and Elliott refer to Hays’s criteria but do not spend enough time on the question of what this implies for the character of the literary phenomenon itself. An echo – be it scriptural or imperial – evokes a scenery in the imagination of the reader by means of only a very short phrase. … The effect of an “echo” thus can be much bigger than the one of bare juxtaposition. The reason for this effectiveness is that narrative structures are formative for worldviews, and echoes are able to evoke alternative scenarios in the imagination, which can have persuasive power. Stories are able to challenge other stories and the worldviews they represent much more effectively than purely factual criticism.

This can also be applied to our subject. It is by no means clear that Paul’s best option for expressing the Messiah’s superiority over against imperatorial claims would have been the blunt assertion “We trust in Jesus not in Caesar!” The claims of Roman imperial ideology were not indifferent statements which could be judged in a detached manner. Nor would this judgement have been something which could have been simply appropriated by decision. These claims, rather, included assertions concerning the structure and nature of reality as it pertained directly to the individual. To question them meant to question a worldview and thus to imply alternative stories. Conversely, alternative narratives implicitly contested the existing paradigm. Contrary to the simple stating of antitheses, stories also offer a reason for accepting these dichotomies by offering a superior meta-structure whose acceptance is facilitated by appealing to the imagination. If Rom 1:1–17 really is a “parody of the imperial cult,” this poses the question whether Paul’s echo-like, resonance-evoking formulation could not have been the most appropriate means to express this powerful contrast (instead of simply being the “safer” way of communication). Similarly, when Paul tells the story of the exaltation of the Messiah in Phil 2:6–11, which climaxes in the worship of the κύριος Jesus – a “stilisierte Kurzerzählung darüber, wie ein Hochwohlgeborener sich dafür qualifiziert, die universale Herrschaft zu erhalten” – I am under the impression that it would (a) not have done justice to Paul’s primary aim of discourse if he had denied the Lordship of Caesar directly (Section 2.2.1) nor would it (b) have been more effective to choose such a procedure.

II. Biographical-Biographical Information

After studying theology at the Freie Theologische Hochschule Gießen, Christoph Heilig went to the University of St Andrews where he received a Master of Letters in “Biblical Languages and Literature” in 2013. Having done additional studies in Göttingen, he is now working with Prof. Jörg Frey on a research project funded by the SNF at the University of Zurich. It deals with the question of the role of narrative substructures for understanding Paul’s letters (see further here). He has also worked on various philosophical issues, which is reflected in part in the methodological approach of his book Hidden Criticism. Being influenced in particular by the linguistic emphasis of Prof. Heinrich von Siebenthal, he is currently completing an in-depth analysis of the function of the metaphor of the Roman triumph in 2 Cor 2:14. His strong interest in the enhancement of the dialogue between German and English biblical scholarship is reflected in, among other things, a volume on N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which he is editing together with Jay Thomas Hewitt and Michael Bird for WUNT II (see here). Further information about Christoph Heilig can be found here.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne