The Old Testament and “Principles” of Theology

At the moment, I am reading through Catherine Bell’s (1953-2008) introduction to ritual theory, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (1997). In discussing ritual density, namely, why certain historical periods have more or less ritual activity, she comments on ancient Judaism and its orthopraxic nature. Her observation draws out a serious issue in how the Hebrew Bible tends to be approached, especially from within Christian circles.

“Although ancient Judaism distinguished itself from its neighbors by its avowal of monotheism, one God over and instead of many gods, this idea was not understood as a theological principle so much as a rule about who and what one could worship” (192).

In other words, ancient Judaism, and hence its remnants within the Hebrew Bible, cannot, and should not, be understood as abiding by timeless orthodoxical principles. While their principles may properly be understood as time timeless orthopractic principles for those in adherence to the Bible, reading the Hebrew Bible as orthodoxical principles is to do injustice to the text. A hermeneutic of orthodoxy, reading the Bible as an authoritative set of true beliefs, will result in different conclusions than a hermeneutic of orthopraxy, reading the Bible as an authoritative set of prescribed actions via the medium of text.

A hermeneutic of orthodoxy quickly and easily abandons issues of contradictory statements, statements likely present due to the diachronic composition of the Hebrew Bible. In response to such contradictions, or at least seeming contradictions, readers must maneuver around the “timeless orthodoxic principles” and find a way to unite them. Of course, this is not  a simple process because the Hebrew Bible isn’t full of orthodoxic principles needing to be formed into a synchronic theology. However, a hermeneutic of orthopraxy can help to solve issues found within the orthodoxic approach. Rather than synchronizing abstract concepts from various contexts, the orthopractic approach attempts to synchronize various practices via their timeless, dynamic, and intricate symbolic imagery.

Bell’s example of the monotheistic nature of ancient Judaism is a perfect example. Read as orthodoxy, the declaration of Yahweh as the only god simply declares a fact. Yet this must be read in context of verses like Exodus 20:3, which declare that one must not worship other gods. Hence, an orthodoxic hermeneutic must find a way to maintain continuity  between the existence of one god and the existence of multiple gods.

From an orthopractic hermeneutic, utilizing the same example, the reader need not synchronize to contrasting elements of the Hebrew Bible; rather, the reader needs only to recognize that the declaration of Yahweh as the only god is more or less a declaration of how one should live in practice. Thus, even with Yahweh as the only god, one is still able to recognize the existence of other gods. But this is only possible through a hermeneutic focused the orthopraxy of the Hebrew Bible.

This is an important and absolutely essential element of biblical interpretation that does justice to the biblical text, reading it within its own context.

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