Thursday, January 15, 2015

Watson on Augustine

I am currently reading Francis Watson's recent book, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013). The book is stimulating and I hope to have the opportunity to say a few things about it here in the coming weeks. 

Let me just highlight one aspect of Watson's treatment which I quite like, namely, the insistence on respecting Augustine's commitment to close readings of the text. 

At one point, while disagreeing with Augustine's proposed solutions to the "synoptic problem", Watson insists, "his proposed solutions do not deserve the contempt with which they are often dismissed" (22). 

He highlights, for example, B.F. Streeter's derision of Augustine's argument for Markan posteriority (i.e., that Mark abbreviated Matthew and Luke), who claimed that,
"only a lunatic would leave out Matthew's account of the Infancy, the Sermon on the Mount, and practically all the parables. . ." (23; citing The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins [London: Macmillan, 1930), 158). 
In response, Watson wryly notes, 
"The possibility of a later gospel lacking precisely the items specified by Streeter is demonstrated by the Gospel of John, whose author Streeter views not as a lunatic. . ." (23). 
It is refreshing to read a book by a scholar who takes Augustine seriously as an exegete. Though he certainly takes issue with some of Augustine's moves, it is nice to see Augustine engaged on exegetical grounds. For once, Augustine isn't simply dismissed as a systematic theologian whose work is irrelevant to contemporary biblical scholarship.

In fact, Watson recognizes that, for Augustine, exegetical and theological interests went hand-in-hand:
There isn sense here that, as a merely scholarly project, the study of gospel origins lies outside the concerns of the Christian community. Augustine knows of no such dichotomy between scholarship and the church. Elsewhere, in his great hermeneutical treatise, De Doctrina Christiana, he develops a comprehensive biblical hermeneutic in which he texts' theological rationale--which is to promote the love of God and neighbor--is given pride of place, but in which scholarly procedures such as textual criticism and exegesis of the Greek and Hebrew texts are also eloquently advocated. An ongoing investigation of gospel origins would be entirely at home within the ethos of this generously inclusive hermeneutics. (22)
Yes, Augustine was a theologian. However, he would have balked at any suggestion that doing theology was somehow separable from careful biblical exegesis. 

Watson writes, 
It is true that Augustine is acutely conscious of differences of wording, and trains his reader to notice them and to take them seriously. He never complains that critics of the gospels are forcing him to attend to minutiae that are really beneath his notice, distracting him from his great work on the doctrine of the trinity. Gospel differences are not minutiae noted only by the malicious. On the contrary, they are objective features of the sacred texts, indeed they constitute the individuality of these texts, and they are therefore worthy of attention. While some of the differences Augustine discusses are well-known problems treated by earlier Christian writers, in most cases they seem to reflect his own independent research. (Watson, Gospel Writing, 28-29).
Attention to biblical "minutiae"? Careful biblical research that goes beyond the questions merely asked (and answered) by others? 

Would that all theologians were more like Augustine! 


danielstreett said...

Watson's comment regarding the fourth gospel's lack of the infancy narrative, SM, and parables really misses the mark IMO. Streeter's point is not that a gospel qua gospel cannot lack these items, but rather that a gospel (Mk) which is supposed to be thoroughly literarily dependent upon Mt/Lk leaves out those items which are so prominent in Mt/Lk.

Michael Barber said...

That's a good point. Thanks for that.

I do, however, think it is difficult to insist that we know what the Gospel writers would have found "essential to include". For example, it certainly seems strange that John leaves out the Institution Narrative, which is not only found in the Synoptics but also Paul. It also makes the most sense of the language in John 6.