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The Historical and Philosophical Context of Robert Funk
Robert W. Funk (1926-2005) was a New Testament scholar in America with tremendous impact on his generation. He studied at Vanderbuilt University where he learned to use, and appreciate, form criticism and Rudolf Bultmann's existential approach to interpreting the New Testament. Funk was steeped in the theology of Bultmann, even translating Bultmann's two-volume Theology of the New Testament into English.i As a result, Funk's theories build off Bultmann's redefinition of biblical terms.
Robert W. Funk
From this, the reason behind Funk's method of interpretation can largely be determined. He believed that the historical critical method is the “modern counterpart to hermeneutics” thus replacing it as the governing rule of interpretation since the New Testament documents ought to be treated the same as other historical documents. However, the historical critical method has one deficiency: it fails to “take into account the limitations and biases of the interpreter.”i For Funk this deficiency is remedied when the existential dimensions of Rudolf Bultmann are added to the historical critical method. By combining the two, Funk could uphold conclusions of the historical critical method and the “exclusivity that the true word which God has spoken in Christ is through the New Testament.”ii
The underlying philosophical concept that under girds Funk's work is his understanding of language and reality which are wrapped up in history. Both precede from what he sees as the “problem of language,” the circular conundrum of which came first: joint understanding or previously understood language.iii For Funk the two create a form of dualism where the two, language and understanding, “give birth to each other” and “also hold each other captive.”iv Since both must occur simultaneously, Funk denies a univocal reality.v For Funk, reality is the shared experiences common to all men that give birth to language and vice versa. As reality evolves or progresses overtime, it is first shaped as men inherit language from history and then subsequently reshape it using that language to create new shared experiences which modify the language for future generations. Second, Funk affirms univocal language.vi He desires that language be cleaned of all equivocal elements so that words “square” (match one-on-one) with the reality man experiences. Taken together, these two presuppositions put a figurative expiration-date on words since their meaning is derived from a reality limited to the shared experiences of the communicator and the intended audience. Once that shared reality has entered history, the words become empty shells devoid of their common experience based meaning and weigh down modern language as “historical litter.”vii
As a result, Funk believed that the “crisis of contemporary Christianity is related to the decay of traditional theological language and the archaic worldview it sponsors.”viii Since the shared reality which gave the words of scripture their meaning is history, “Biblical language is part of the linguistic litter that has come down to us in our tradition.”ix By the very nature and destiny of language, “theology in a traditional sense is no longer viable” and must submit to the risk of the future of language “if it does not wish to become ghetto language, the cloistered tongue of the Christianized age.”x To do this, Funk mediates the work of German scholars Gerhard Ebeling and Ernst Fuchs with his interpretation of Rudolf Bultmann's existential approach to “expose the roots of our linguistic tradition” and “liberate language from the hegemony of prescriptive thought.”
The Seminal Work of Robert Funk
In the early 1960s, Funk became one of the major proponents and popularizers of a new movement called the New Hermeneutic. The New Hermeneutic emerged from the works of Martin Heidegger who claimed that “language itself is interpretation, and not its object.”i Collaborating on a series of lectures at Drew University, Funk put together “the antecedents of this linguistic approach to theology and offered two test probes into the way a new language evokes a new religious tradition in Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God,” Funk's programmatic work according to Hayes.ii
Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God
Funk begins Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology, by showing the necessity of language. However, as discussed above, language has a problem which is “whether a common, understandable language depends upon a prior joint understanding, or whether joint understanding is dependent upon a previously understood language.”iii He states that the problem is irreconcilable and thus attention should be given to the root issue of what bearing the two claims have on one another. However, this reveals a deeper issue: in order to discuss the problem of language one must use the very language that is affected by the problem. This language problem affects the gospel since it is tied to language and as a result no longer carries meaning. God and Christ are dead in the literal understanding of the text, since it refers to a reality that we no longer experience. Traditional Hermeneutics is also dead because it is meaningless to interpret a text that is “a human word and therefore historically conditioned.” In this sense the text cannot be the Word of God since “the text itself is already the interpretation of the word of God.”iv Therefore, the text ought not to be interpreted since discerning God's word from it is impossible. Instead, the text should be allowed to be the “interpreter.”v For Funk, Jesus' listeners could only identify themselves as they understood his word of grace, which they would know when they heard it. If they applied the grace they heard to themselves they would know what God is, but not until. This is how the word interprets man, as either “receptive sinners or upset pharisees who want justice on top of grace.”vi Thus, preaching the gospel is anything that “gives expression to God's word in Christ, that is speaks or interprets or translates the meaning of the saying, 'the word became flesh' (Jhn. 1:14).”vii
So preaching the gospel is a failure “until the gospel is apprehended afresh.” Modern people need to listen hard as grace “echoes” faintly from traditional church, and “perhaps then, by some miracle, the sacred trust of the gospel, which comes not according to man nor from man, but through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:2), may be granted to this time and place.”viii
Part I – Language as Event and Theology
After presenting the nature of language, Funk precedes his two probes by presenting a “critique of contemporary theological approaches to the problem of language”ix and insists that modern theology must start with Rudolf Bultmann. However, he admits being greatly influenced by the works of German scholars Gerhard Ebeling and Ernst Fuch who take Bultmann's redefinition of Biblical language to a new level and ultimately “understand themselves to be going beyond Bultmann in certain crucial respects.”x He agrees with their assessment that Bultmann focused to demythologize the text because he did not grasp the nature of language. Since the text no longer has meaning, what requires “demythologizing is not so much the language of the text as modern man. Modern man is to be interpreted by the text, not the text by modern man.”xi This stems from Fuchs and Ebeling's discovery of the “linguisticality of existence” in theology, that “the articulation of the gospel requires that the reality to which it refers become audible in language.”xii Funk captures this understanding in the Word Event (Language as event), which is performative discourse, i.e. language that is “doing something” (action verbiage) over merely “saying something” (descriptive verbiage), such as marriage vows. Funk sees a Word Event as being the source of existential achievement since it deals “not with the 'logical' but with the 'historical' functions of words, not with the statement but with the address, and not only demands faith, but evokes it.”xiii
In this light, the Word of God is seen as a Word Event and the Biblical Text is an interpretation, or snapshot, of the Word of God language event. Hence, interpreting the text is dangerous since man can abuse the Word of God as handed down, but not when the Word of God enters into language and redeems both it and man's relation to reality. The text needs to interpret man so that “a word is received as God's Word only when it is not in itself an isolated object of faith, but opens the way for faith to find its ground in God.” Thus, the the Word of God is the advent of authentic language: “the creation of a new language tradition out of which man may then live.”xiv
Funk also analyzes the approaches of van Buren, Ogden, and Heinrich Ott, praising them for seeing authentic existence independent of the Christ event, but faulting them for maintaining theism.xv
Part II – Language as it Occurs in the New Testament: Parable
The first probe of Funk's New Hermeneutic is demonstrated using the parables of the Great Supper and Good Samaritan. Again drawing heavily from Ernst Fuch, Funk sees Jesus' parables as the Word Event that created Christian Tradition via the “incarnation” of the Word. Thus, whereas Bultmann located the origins of Christianity in the faith of the apostles, Funk pushes it back to the proclamation of Jesus.
Jesus the Parabler accomplished this Word Event by turning everyday language on its head to give listeners a choice to question the inauthentic reality they inherited. Funk here asserts the parable as metaphor for God's presence over simple teaching device since it creates opportunity to experience authentic reality by raising “the potential for new meaning.”xvi Parables are thus “open” events requiring the audience to either interpret the parable or let the parable interpret them. They are “open” in the sense that they draw the listener in as a participant in order to tease them into active thought by creating doubt about its precise application.xvii To do this Jesus' parables are “pieces of everydayness” that “have an unexpected 'turn' in them which looks through the commonplace to a new view of reality” and leads the listener “to a strange world where everything is familiar yet radically different.”xviii Now the text interprets the hearer as they must specify the meaning of the parables for themselves.xix The listener “either ventures into the strangeness or draws back,” “must choose to unfold with the story, be illuminated by the metaphor, or reject the call and abide with the conventional.” The parable is a language event since the listener must choose between their inauthentic reality or “if he elects the parabolic world, he is invited to dispose himself to concrete reality as it is ordered in the parable, and venture, without benefit of landmark but on the parable's authority, into the future.”xx For Funk, Pharisees hold on to “crystallized” meaning of reality and sinners elect the parabolic one. This language event was lost when the parable was “closed” because the meaning, application, or conclusion of the parable was no longer decided by the listener, but set by the tradition of the primitive church in the kerygma. The result has been a great loss of “hermeneutical potential.”
Funk proposes that the New Hermeneutic looks to the linguistic modes of Jesus' “History” vs. kerygmatic theology of the primitive church. Since “the parable 'collects' Jesus, his relation to God, his eschatology, his ethic, and the hearer into a language event which is the kingdom; the kingdom comes to speech in the parable as parable”xxi and thus justifies “the view that the parable is the mode of language most appropriate to the incarnation” since in the parable we encounter “the logos incarnate.”xxii Since this language bore the incarnation and made it eventful, this is what must be re-examined for the sake of reassessing theology.xxiii “The language of parable is the language of invitation: In light of contemporary work on the phenomenology of language, he showed that for Jesus, God's empire is not simply another idea in the history of religions but a new destination that is glimpsed through the parables”xxiv However, in order to find this destination the historical words of Jesus must be recovered.
Part III – Language as it Occurs in the New Testament: Letter
The second probe is into the personal letters of Paul as primary reflections on the fate of this new language tradition amongst those who never experienced it firsthand, using 1 Corinthians 2:2-16. Using form and style criticism, Funk sees in Paul's reflections on the Word Event of Jesus' parables two poles that he moves between. The first is “what the proclamation intends, i.e. the “subject matter” of the proclamation” while the other is “the way in which that proclamation is being heard, i.e., its fate among his hearers in view of their situation, their expectations.”xxv Paul juxtaposes “what is to be heard” and actual hearing within the problem of language to show his listeners “than an affirmation about either God or Christ is at the same time an affirmation about oneself, about one's 'world'” and its reversal that “faith in man that does not fall into condemnation is to affirm God's saving act in Christ.”xxvi
This shows that Paul is not trying set “doctrinal assertions or systems,” but is trying to “hear the word anew for himself and for the Corinthains” by using a new audience's language to reanimate the Word Event of Jesus to reveal the truth of human existence (its present state and essential possibilities). Here we see that in 1 Corinthians 2:2-16 the “the view that Paul sets a staouroj [cross] christology over against a sofi/a[wisdom] christology is only superficially correct” since it is much more than a dispute over opinions about Jesus Christ, “it is a dispute about faith itself, and Paul's concern is therefore not so much to correct a faulty christology but to bring the Christ to stand. By bringing the Crucified anew into language Paul hopes to confront the Corinthians again with the word of faith, with the word that is power, in which case the need for controversy will have ceased.” Funk lauds Paul for endeavoring upon this risky enterprise since “God acts only where he comes to speech anew.”xxvii
Thus, “for Funk, the real heirs of Jesus the parabler are not always the same as the heirs of the second-century creedal Christ.”xxviii Therefore, churches and scholars should stop attempting to interpret the snapshot of proclamation that took place and allow the reader to interpret it by juxtaposing the parables with later New Testament texts to escape the historical litter created by Christian Tradition. On the same thought, Modern preachers should imitate Paul who worked to use his listener's language to take the proclamation of faith that has taken place (Jesus Word Event) and to see that it becomes proclamation again that takes place bringing listeners “to the ground of faith, Jesus, so that their situation is radically qualified.”xxix
The Major Contributions to Biblical Interpretation by Robert Funk
Much of the efforts from Funk's career were to popularize the works of New Testament scholarship and attempt to bring them down from the ivory tower to the literate public.
In addition to translating the works of Rudolf Bultmann, Funk was one of the key leaders in transmitting the Bultmannian school of biblical interpretation to America in 1950s and 1960s.xxx The Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) is said to have exploded during his tenure (1968-73) from “a small circle of biblical scholars in the Northeast into a large and inclusive international learned society” due to his administrative visionary.xxxi And the American Academy of Religion (AAR) also grew considerably during the 1960's and 70's as a result of this leadership.xxxii
Funk also created two publishing houses, Scholars Press and Polebridge Press, to expand the outlets available for their scholarly works and “linked academic seminars with specific research and publication programs”xxxiii such as the Jesus Seminar.
Funk was dissatisfied that the vast majority of the literate public was ignorant of the results from modern biblical scholarship. “For Funk, the scholarly guild has failed its responsibility to keep the public informed about its critical work, and the church, for the most part, has blocked the transmission of scholarly judgments to the pews.”xxxiv
Thus, Funk founded the Jesus Seminar in 1985 in an attempt to renew the quest for the Historical Jesus and communicate the findings on a level that non-academic readers could digest. “His attempt to communicate the results of critical biblical scholarship to the general public through the Jesus Seminar is primarily responsible for the current widespread interest in the historical figure of Jesus.”xxxv
The Jesus Seminar
Starting in 1985, the Jesus Seminar set out to discover what Jesus actually said and did using historical critical methodology finally to overcome what “scholars have recognized [since the Enlightenment]: that the Christ of faith had eclipsed the Jesus of history by the time the Gospels were composed.”i The Seminar has been controversial, not only because of its open acceptance and application of the historical critical method to challenge biblical authority, but also because it “challenges biblical scholars to indicate how their work affects religious faith.”
Over the course of the project one to two hundred Gospel scholars familiar with the critical works on Jesus' sayings and deeds attested to him in the first three centuries were invited to the four phases, each five years in length, until Funk died in 2005. In each phase, scholars were permitted to cast color coded ballots, in the form of beads, to indicate how accurate a recorded saying or deed attributed to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels and Gospel of Thomas was to the original historical event. According to Marcus Borg, a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, a compromise of only four categories was offered: red, not to include an item “unequivocally in the database for determining who Jesus was”; pink, to include an item with “reservations (or modifications) in the database”; gray, to “not include an item in the database” even though some of the content might assist in determining who Jesus was; and black, to not include an item in the primary database since “it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.”i Authentic language is determinable via the historical critical method and Funk's influence that “the parables are taken to be the authentic voice of Jesus and thus provide a criterion for distinguishing Jesus tradition from its domestication in the early church.”ii
The results of the Jesus Seminar were released after each phase. Phase One created an inventory of all the sayings attributed to Jesus during the first two centuries, as published in The Five Gospels. Phase Two did the same for the deeds of Jesus, as published in The Acts of Jesus. Phase three created various profiles of the Historical Jesus, as published in the Profiles of Jesus. Phase Four analyzed the relevance of the historical Jesus for contemporary Christian faith, as published in The Once and Future Jesus, The Once and Future Faith, and The Historical Jesus Goes to Church.
Whether or not Funk's ultimate goal in founding the Jesus Seminar, “to elevate the historical Jesus from a religious icon to a culturally significant figure for the modern world”iii was achieved, is still being determined by scholars and the literate public today.
Positive Features from the Works of Robert Funk
Many scholars, including Evangelicals, have benefited from Funk's contribution to biblical scholarship.
One of Funk's most enduring legacies according to McKim, is his standard reference grammar for New Testament Greek A Grammar of the Greek New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDF), a translation and revision that is acclaimed as superior to its German original.i
For many years in Greek studies, scholars considered New Testament koine Greek to be substandard in comparison to Classical Greek. To the consternation and embarrassment of New Testament scholars, theories abounded that koine Greek was the layman or backwater dialect of Classical Greek. However, Funk was the first to apply modern linguistics to the analysis of Greek Syntax in A Beginning-Intermediate Grammar of Hellenistic Greek which “argued that New Testament Greek is a dialect in its own right and not a vulgarization of classical Greek.”ii Funk successfully answered the question: “Should not the language of the NT be treated as a dynamic idiom that deserves its own definition rather than as a corruption of the Attic dialect, and should not insights from modern linguistics and second language pedagogy be used for the analysis and teaching of NT Greek?”iii As a result, New Testament Greek studies are now seen as a separate entity or sub-field of Greek with its own integrity instead of an arm or detail of Classical Greek.
In his assessment of the New Testament documents, Funk established the structural components of Paul's letters: salutation, thanksgiving period, letter body, apostolic parousia, paranesis and closing. He was able to discern these formal features of personal letters by using the burgeoning discipline of papyrology to prove the highly conventional form of common letters from Greco-Roman era which Paul adapted to create a new genre of Christian letters.iv
In other works, Funk “made an important contribution to the understanding of Paul's travel plans and their connection to his apostolic vocation.”v
Influence of Culture
In the latter years of Funk's career, he drew attention to the many ways cultural influences the message of Jesus. Many of his writings and teachings from this time address American culture and how it “has formed – and often deformed, in his judgment – the message of and about Jesus.”vi
Cautionary Features from the Work of Robert Funk
Funk is a highly lauded New Testament scholar, and has made great contributions due to his knowledge of New Testament Greek, but Funk and his hermeneutics are far from Christian in any traditional or orthodox use of the term, denying God's being, Christ's deity, Scripture's authority, and more.
Evangelicals would do well to heed to the conundrum of language and understanding as Funk presents it, but a high view of Scripture should lead to the precedence of language over understanding as God spoke the world into being. This demands a univocal reality as attested to in Biblical texts. Plus, contrary to Funk's view, disputes over reality fail to prove the absence of a univocal one.vii However, combined with Funk's points on “linguistic events” this proves that the debate which Thomas Aquinas started over the nature of language (expressly as it relates to religious language) has not been settled and further work must be done in determining whether language is analogical, metaphorical, or univocal in nature.
The New Hermeneutic
Though the New Hermeneutic has waned since its introduction in the 1960s, Funk's elevation of the Historical Critical Method and Bultmann's existential theology can still be detected in modern theological approaches. However, these methods presuppose a different final authority than God and his word in Scripture, and thus cannot be reconciled with an Evangelical worldview.
This is not to say that Evangelicals should shy away from the historical critical method, but adopt a healthy understanding that is theistic and does not divorce the Word of God from the text in its application. The historical critical method should aid, not replace, hermeneutics as it seeks meaning and value in the text. However, there is little recoverable from Bultmann's anti-supernatural assertions which deny the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, since attempting to “free” the New Testament from the shaping of Christian Tradition he forces it to fit existential philosophy. His stance that faith created Easter (the subjective understandings of the disciples and their deep longing for Christ to return that it created the existential experience through their personal faith that Christ rose again in their hearts) instead of the apostolic claim that Easter created faith must be rejected. Likewise, Funk's stance that “the Parables of Jesus as word events that generated Christianity”viii defies an Evangelical position.
The New Hermeneutic's Word Event theory seems to draw from postmodern thought by placing the locus of meaning in the subjectivity of the listener vs. an objective absolute Truth. This mostly denies the historicity of Scripture in the quest to penetrate behind the preaching of the early church (the kerygma) to find the “real” historical Jesus who merely told parables. Woodbridge points out two additional criticisms: 1) the Word Event is a nebulous concept so empty and contentless it cannot be linked to the Christ event of the Christian Kerygma, and 2) that “the God of the new hermeneutic appears to be so immanent that, were the human race and language to disappear, no God would be left.”ix Ultimately, the New Hermeneutic has a pantheistic feel since God's presence is in language and language creates the human world. The moment when that language interprets man in the Word Event and he accepts concrete reality, amounts to an enlightenment-like experience, but no real change.
Accuracy of Dictionaries of Biblical Interpreters
McKim's and Hayes's dictionaries of Biblical interpreters provide a brief but accurate assessment of Funk's many contributions and how they impact Biblical scholarship. Both dictionaries assume a level of familiarity with the history of Biblical interpretation as no ink is wasted explaining the views that Funk espoused and are clearest only after interacting with the material firsthand.
McKim remains more objective than Hayes (who posits a less Evangelical friendly approach) and shows that “prior to Funk's work, the parables of Jesus were interpreted either as allegories in which the kingdom of God was taken to be an otherworldly reality or as a picturesque illustrations of particular ethical or theological propositions,”x but “by persuasively arguing that the parables are metaphors that reveal Jesus' alternate vision of reality, Funk produced a seismic shift in how Jesus' parables are interpreted and in his vision of the Kingdom of God”xi and “disclose an alternate Jesus tradition composed of voices not overtly identified with normative theological tradition.”xii
However, these resources do not have the space to explain the importance of language in the New Hermeneutic to organize and constitute one's “world as either estranged and fragmented (inauthentic) or interrelated and united (authentic)” where “authentic words challenge one to consider another, more satisfying way of constituting his world” and that language, which for the New Hermeneutic is the Word of God, is “true to the potential for unity in existence (and unity is a condition in which love prevails).”
Brett Yardley: Warrior for Christ. Devoted Husband. Proud Father. Martial Artist. Hopeful Philosopher & Theologian. Aspiring Teacher & Writer.