Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Radner on Typology

This is a fantastic excerpt from Ephraim Radner's commentary on Leviticus (pp. 57-59). It's the preface to the chapter on Leviticus iv, 1 - v, 13. For all you lazy/busy folks out there, I'll embolden the part that most sums up the whole (but you really should read it all if you can, especially since I spent an hour typing it up - with one hand - in a dimly lit room!):
levThe sacrifices of Lev. 1-3 are given generally. They lay out the form of human history that is gathered up in and by Christ, but they do so with a sweep that universalizes the character of that history of redemption. As the next chapters unfold, we are taken to a more concrete plane, one in which the forms of history are particularized in the actions and consequences of individuals or groups in time. The sacrifices enjoined in this section will take the form of those outlined already - for example, the sin offering of Lev. 4 explicitly partakes of the forms of both the peace offering (Lev. 4:10) and the burnt offering (4:4, 12). They are sacrifices, then, that specify, that elaborate, that engage in the particular stories of the larger history. But they do not alter it or provide alternatives.

The Christian tradition has therefore to tended to read these details almost, in musical terms, as improvisations upon the central themes of the types of Christ's death that were seen as originally laid out in the first chapters. As already noted, Origen was explicit in this claim, and when he comes to these chapters he uses it to bolster his summarizing exposition: "Almost every victim is that is offered partakes of some aspect of the image of Christ, for in him every sacrifice is 'recapitulated'" (Homilies on Leviticus 3.5). This is temporally proved, he says, by the historical fact that, once Jesus died upon the cross, all these particular sacrifices "ceased" (at least for the church).

Origen is well aware of the redundancy this may create in Christian interpretation of a book like Leviticus: everything will inevitably sound the same theme, over and over again. In response, the Christian reader of the book's details will engage in a kind of jouissance, to use Roland Barthe's description, of interpretive experiment, so long as it remains tethered within the central christic figuration that the text exposes. The sacrifices are, in each case, the same offering of himself, but seen from the perspectives of redeemed and fallen flesh respectively. (And this accounts, therefore, for the different treatment of and emphasis upon the fleshly details of skin and excrement in Lev. 4 in contrast to Lev. 1 and Lev. 3.) Similarly, and on a more specific basis, Origen will take up the differing aspects of a particular sacrifice, as in 4:1-12, and relate each to elements of Christ's own self and mission: the kidneys that are burnt refer to Christ's freedom from carnal perturbation; the seven sprinklings of blood by the priest represent the seven gifts of the Spirit; the four horns of the altar that are touched by blood are tied to the four-gospel renditions of the passion; the lobe of the liver stands for human rage, consumed at the altar; and the blood that is poured at the base of the altar points to the final grace of Israel's conversion, which takes place after all the nations are brought in by the church (Homilies on Leviticus 3.5).

In all this, history is explicated and fills out the core meaning of the sacrifice as being Christ's. Still, we might wonder if this history has already been somehow circumscribed by the tight typological fit given it, and in the unidirectional fashion with which is applied, so that Leviticus itself ceases to elucidate in its own right even the figure of Christ, by the time of the Reformation (e.g., Calvin 1996: 2.345).

By the time we reach Calvin, we see something of this pinched character emerge more clearly. If the sacrifices of Leviticus exist for the purpose of indicating Jesus, on what basis do they offer any divine sustenance today for those who know Christ clearly and therefore need no further signs drawn from the obscure reaches of the past? The pedagogical theory - the law as training wheels for the infantile Jews - is dusted off, and the clear sacraments of Christ are retrojected into the Israelites' life as a kind of image staring out from the murky depths of time, but the details of the text - the kinds of animals, the actions taken, the parts of the bodies cut - are important only because they demand care in worship, and of course all people must be careful in their devotion to God. It is a good lesson to bear in mind.

There is an incipient, and understandable, hermeneutic at work in Calvin, comparable to the contemporary practice of engaging foreign culture on the basis of some purported and radically shared existential experience. The Israelites did things so strange to us that we are left trying to find some basic, if only general, bridge by which to make any sense of it (e.g., just like us in our best moments, they tried to be scrupulous in their devotion, they were held to an external account for their behavior, they recognized a God beyond their own manipulation, and so on). The irony is that this kind of fallback on a putative species of common human religiosity derives from a tenacious Christocentricity. The problem, however, is not with the typological framework itself that Calvin uses, which is both inevitable and necessary, but with the historical meaning of its linkages. Not only should the character of the sacrifices be elucidated by the figure of Christ; but, if the subjecting and formative power of the word at work and visible in the Scriptures is to be honored, the figure of Christ ought to be, in a sense, explicated by the sacrifices.

In this case, the movement into the sin offering, and its peculiar character in Lev. 4, represents not simply a restatement of the central dogma of atonement, but rather a detailing of sin's shape as it is engaged by Jesus. And thus, the contours of the Christ are here clarified in a way that would be impossible apart from the fullness of the Scriptures given in this book in particular. Christ's ingathering journey goes through this landscape nor only contingently, but essentially. [source]
This has been said much more simply (though by highlighting a different aspect of biblical interpretation) by the long-hidden Dennis Hou as:
[T]here is the temptation to swallow up the uniqueness of every person and event by typological categories. Everyone is a new Adam, or Moses, or Israel; everything is a new creation, or exodus, or tabernacle. Yes, Joseph is a type of Christ, but so is every other human being that ever was, is, or will be. God makes these categorial cups run over with glory in each individual's life, for life is repetition with difference, so we must never flatten redemptive history into a line or rob particulars of their particularity. How is Joseph a type of Christ in a way that Benjamin isn't? If Solomon is a new Adam, what makes him greater than Adam? Christ recapitulates Adam and Israel, but in fulfilling these roles, does He not also exceed and redefine them? [source]