Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Bifocal Vision of George Caird

According to George Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, p 256, the biblical writers
(1) believed literally that the world had had a beginning in the past and would have an end in the future

but also

(2) regularly used end-of-the-world language metaphorically to refer to that which they well knew was not the end of the world
Caird claimed that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible looked to the future with "bifocal vision" (p 258), with their near sight eyeballing a dramatic socio-political event soon to occur, with their far sight targeting the end of the cosmos. They imposed one image on the other so that their prophecies had a double-reference, an immediate historical one and a final eschatological one -- the former expressed through imagery pertaining to the latter. Thus the destruction of Babylon in Isa 13 stands as a model, or perhaps even begins, the final judgment to come over the entire world.

Caird's bifocal model applies more readily to some prophetic language than others, and it's not without problems. There are cases where I think pre-exilic apocalyptic language was intended more literally than he allows. But what's crucial to note is that Caird recognized in biblical thought a definite view of the literal end of the world. You can't say that for Tom Wright, who has run wild with Caird's ideas and denies the second half of Caird's (1) without ever making plain (at least in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series) that he departs from Caird on this particular point. Wright rejects the notion that the biblical authors believed the cosmos ("space-time universe", as he prefers) would ever be literally destroyed, reducing Caird's bifocal view of eschatology to pure socio-political upheaval -- not least on grounds because a literal destruction of the earth implies (to Wright) anti-creationism and a "gnostic" type of dualism on the part of God.

Edward Adams has critiqued Wright throughout his monograph The Stars Will Fall From Heaven: Cosmic Catastrophe in the New Testament and its World, which I'm now reading a second time for review. Adams' case against Wright is conclusive, and he's able to show repeatedly that a literal destruction of the cosmos didn't stand in tension with the biblical/intertestamental/NT view that creation was good, as Wright claims it would have. Adams also points out the difference between Caird and Wright in passing, and I was glad to see this since the two are sometimes uncritically lumped together. Caird's bifocal vision has become Wright's short-sighted one which truncates an ancient view in order to make it modernly world-friendly.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the food for thought. I just picked up Adams' book at the library for a paper I'm working on, but haven't cracked it open yet.


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