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Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University

 

 

The year 2006 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Disneyland, the amusement park that vividly brought to life the magic of the wonderful world of Walt Disney’s imagination.  Many adults who visit Disneyland experience it as a return to familiar horizons from their youth.  But the world of Disney’s imagination was so rich and vibrant that it can never be viewed as a period piece, erected at one particular time and place in the past. Rather it has the potential for infinite expansion.  So no matter how often one returns, one is apt to find some attraction that rekindles that primordial sense of wonder that was experienced on one’s first visit.  

The preceding is a parable for anyone who reads the Bible. What few are apt to be aware of, however, is that the year 2006 has another, more important significance.  It celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Robert W. Funk’s seminal book, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God,1 in which the author invited a generation of biblical scholars to discover anew the wonders of the topsy-turvy imaginations of both Jesus and Paul.

For more than a century prior to 1966 biblical scholars and theologians had been preoccupied with the problem of the gap between the biblical worldview and the understanding of the world generated by modern philosophy and science. Christian theology has traditionally claimed that scripture is the prime vehicle for hearing the word of God.  But if the language of the Bible was bound to an archaic vision of the world that struck modern readers as fantastic and unreal then traditional theology was faced with a crisis. For how can words that convey an inaccurate description of the real world be received as the word of one who is really God — at least of that God who could be believed to have created the real world?  Any God who creates an unreal world is bound to be conceived as unreal.  Visitors to Disney World may be awed by the creations of the Disney "imagineers."  But no one but the youngest would ever confuse Fantasyland with the world of everyday life. So the inescapable problem that the development of the modern world has posed for Christian theology is how to recover the relevance of the language of biblical theology as the vehicle for the true word of God for today’s world.

Liberal theologians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tried to distill the essence of eternal rational truth from scripture and to discard the parts that everyday modern human experience would consider fantastic. Karl Barth and other neo-Orthodox theologians of the mid-twentieth century took the opposite tact. Noting that the Bible itself equated the word of God with a prophetic challenge to secular men of the ancient world, they argued that it is precisely in challenging modern humanity’s self-sufficient godless worldview that the Bible was still the prime vehicle for the word of God.

Rudolf Bultmann charted a path between both camps by distinguishing two aspects of language: event and concept. Events are active; they happen to someone. Concepts are passive; they are descriptions of a world subject to contemplation.  The Bible portrays God as an active Force, whose word has power to create and judge.  Therefore, Bultmann concluded, the word of God can never be reduced to a particular worldview, not even that of the New Testament. Since ancient Israelites heard God speak through Hebrew prophets addressing their own situation ("Thus says the LORD: 'I am the LORD your God...'), modern humans can encounter that same God only in words directly addressed to their own existence.  For the biblical God is not just one of many concepts in a human view of the world.  Rather, people actually hear God speak only in words that transform their own prior self-understanding.

This de-objectification of the understanding of the word of God lay at the heart of Bultmann’s controversial and often misinterpreted call for de-mythologization of the New Testament.  In the first third of Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God Funk adeptly guides readers through the maze of Bultmannian and post-Bultmannnian views of language and scripture. It would be folly to try to summarize all the twists and turns of that tour here, especially since that would require a crash course for those unfamiliar with the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.  But I would encourage any reader who wants to understand the path taken by some of the most influential biblical scholars and theologians of the past and present generation to follow Funk’s own summary of the impact of their views of language on the task of biblical interpretation.

For Funk himself, one Heideggerian insight is crucial for recovering the original revelatory power of New Testament texts. Heidegger held that language did not just describe an existing world but rather created a world by evoking it.  Words are not properly understood when they are viewed as merely labels, that is, as signs pointing to something else. On the contrary, language is where humans encounter their world.  It is the house in which Being itself resides. Thus, in Heidegger’s view, it is poets who create the world by articulating a vision which others are invited to visit and explore.

In the last two thirds of Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God Funk leads readers through an exercise to discover Jesus and Paul as poets, men whose use of language shaped visions of the world in which others are invited to dwell.  In detailed exegetical studies of select parables of Jesus and letters of Paul, Funk explores how the words of both men articulate visions that challenge hearers to rethink their old worldviews and to see themselves in a new light. Jesus’ "poetry" is in his use of metaphor, while Paul’s comes in his flair for paradox. In either case the worldview presupposed by the intended audience is stood on its head.

Funk’s exploration of the language of Jesus and Paul advanced key insights that were to make a lasting impact on future interpretations of parables and letters alike. Earlier in the century Adolf Jülicher had challenged the traditional understanding of the parables as allegories—picturesque fictions that required interpretation—by arguing persuasively that Jesus’ parables were, rather, extended similes or metaphors that illustrated a single point (for instance, the kingdom of God). Each parable was taken to mean one thing and one thing only. Subsequent scholars (most notably C. H. Dodd and Joachim Jeremias) also saw each parable as illustrating a single point. But unlike Jülicher, who tended to interpret parables in terms of timeless abstract truths, other scholars tended to locate the parables' "original" point within the framework of eschatological Jesus sayings: sayings, that is, that imply God's final judgment of the world and creation of a new world order. In either case, the parable was taken to mean something other than itself. If that were so, then the parable would be understood merely as a pedagogical tool: a sign that points to a reality other than itself and that was dispensable once one recognized its point.

In exploring the linguistic horizons of metaphor, however, Funk argued that the plots of Jesus’ parables could not be reduced to a simple point that was better and more clearly expressed in general abstractions. Rather, Jesus’ parables create a view of a world as Jesus himself wanted it to be seen, a world that was at once the everyday world in which he lived and yet a world so constructed as to call his hearers’ preconceptions into question. The world of Jesus’ parables, Funk argued, is both familiar and strange.  On the one hand, it is a picture of the world of common secular existence—flaws and all—rather than some imaginary heavenly or futuristic utopian realm.  On the other hand, the conjunction of elements in the world depicted by Jesus is surrealistic to the point that it “cracks the shell of mundane temporality” (p. 156), inviting the hearer to participate in a reordered perception of everyday reality.

Funk repeatedly invokes parallels between the parables of Jesus and the world that Lewis Carroll’s Alice saw in Through the Looking Glass : “all is familiar, and all is strange, and the one illuminates the other” (p. 160). On the one hand, the familiarity of elements in the world portrayed by Jesus invites the hearer to enter his vision; yet once one recognizes the strangeness of the construction one is forced to decide whether to stay within that world or leave it. Thus, Funk argues, Jesus’ parables are misunderstood when viewed either as commonly acceptable mundane truths or descriptions of an ideal ultimate world order. Rather, Jesus’ parables “present a world the listener recognizes, acknowledges.  Then he is caught up in the dilemma of the metaphor: it is not his world after all” (p. 162).

Funk’s analysis of how Jesus’ parables function as metaphor caught twentieth-century biblical scholars up in a dilemma. If Funk’s view of the world as depicted by Jesus is correct, the commonplace interpretation of Jesus as an eschatological prophet has to be abandoned.  For the vision of the world that Jesus proposed as illustrating God’s kingdom is not an idyllic utopian realm after all.  Rather it is very much a vision of the present sphere of mundane human existence, with all its incongruities and imperfections spotlighted.  Thus, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God takes a tentative, but very necessary, first step towards an understanding of the non-eschatological Jesus that was later to emerge full-blown in the research of the Jesus Seminar.

Funk’s exploration of the language of the letters of Paul is more preliminary than his study of the parables but no less earthshaking theologically.  For most of church history the Pauline epistles have been treated as primary source books for Christian doctrine.  But Funk stressed that, as real letters addressed to specific readers, Paul’s letters are correctly understood only as one side of a conversation in which Paul “deforms” his audience’s preconceived notions, not with ready-made doctrines of salvation but with paradoxical reminders of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Paul borrows the jargon used by his opponents for the sake of argument only.   He shows no interest in championing his personal christology against all others. Rather, he calls attention to the crucified Jesus explicitly to deflate grandiose theological theories. If that insight is correct, then Paul’s statements serve as a caution against all self-promoting normative theological doctrine.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland opens with Alice musing about the book her older sister is reading: “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”  The author of Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God was inclined to agree.  Although his book was published devoid of illustrations, he opened the eyes of a generation to recognize that the speech of both Jesus and Paul invoked paradoxical images to crack conventional worldviews and challenge others to imagine reality in a wonderfully fresh way.

/1/ Funk, Robert W. Language, Hermeneutic and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

 

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  • This article was written as a tribute to the author's mentor & published in The Fourth R  in 2006.

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