The Defenestration of Prague and the Hermeneutics of ‘Story’: A Response to Peter Leithart

Don Collett
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Trinity School for Ministry

The following short essay is a response to an argument Peter Leithart offers in his book Deep Exegesis.[1] It is not intended to be a response to the entire book, which provides many fine insights in the nature of theological exegesis. Rather, it is an engagement with a particular historical claim Leithart makes in the book, namely, the claim that later historical events not only modify our description of earlier events, but change the events themselves.[2] Since this argument forms a significant part of the basis for his understanding of the relation between the new historical event of Christ’s resurrection and the earlier events depicted in Genesis 22, examining this argument is important, because it touches upon the larger and more controversial hermeneutical issue of the New Testament’s relation to the Old Testament.

Leithart argues that when one historical event (event 1) causes a later historical event (event 2), event 2 not only changes our description of event 1, but changes event 1 per se. He makes use of an historical example involving “the defenestration of Prague” which sparked the Thirty Years’ War, followed by another example where a shooting becomes an assassination. With regard to the latter, which he discusses at length, he advances the claim that “the event at 10:00 am [shooting] changes as a result of the event at 1:00 pm [death].”[3] Although one might be forgiven for thinking that a better way to state this would be to say that a new meaning accrues to the event at 10 am as a result of the new historical event at 1:00 pm, this is also the position of Arthur Danto, whom Leithart interacts with, but disagrees with.[4]

The argument trades on a lack of clear distinctions, especially the example of a shooting at 10 am that becomes a killing at 1 pm. When brought into relation with event 2 (death), our understanding of event 1 (shooting) is that it will end in assassination. Yet it also remains true that without event 2, event 1 is not and cannot be an assassination, though one might call it an attempted assassination. This is one reason among others stated below that I find myself questioning Leithart’s conclusion that after 2:00 pm, we can call event 1 “either a shooting or a killing,”[5] even though he recognizes that these are two separate events. After 2 pm, we can call event 1 a shooting that resulted in a killing (or assassination), but not a killing per se.

The problems implicit in Leithart’s logic emerge when we consider an alternative causal sequence. The shooting of event 1 causes a doctor to perform brain surgery, which results in healing and recovery (event 2). According to the logic Leithart is working with, after the occurrence of the successful brain surgery (event 2), we would be able to call event 1 either a shooting or a healing. But healing is a “property” that properly belongs to the second event (surgery), and not originally to the first event (shooting), though of course it affects the larger meaning of event 1 retrospectively. Shooting may result in death, but left to run its course, it does not cause healing. And yet the shooting does cause event 2 (surgery). Event 2 changes our understanding of event 1, but event 1 remains what it was—a shooting. Again, it is not the first event per se that has changed, but our understanding of it.

To be sure, Leithart does not wish to make the claim “that every event changes every prior event in any meaningful way. Even events caused by prior events do not necessarily change what those prior events were.”[6] While this qualifying observation is true, it does not speak to the counterexample above, because Leithart is not talking about two causally related historical events (as in the case of the shooting-assassination), but of a historical event that is causally related to a later cognitive event, as is evident from the remarks that follow the previous quote: “My musings on the Thirty Years’ War were caused by the Thirty Years’ War. If the war had never taken place, I would never commented upon it. But my comments do not have any significant effect on the event.”[7]

There is a distinction between cognitive events, which occur in the mind, and historical events, which are extra-mental and occur outside our “musings.” Of course one might choose to call a cognitive event an historical event, since cognitive events take place in time, but this is not the same thing as an external historical event, nor do historians generally have cognitive events in view when they speak of historical events. Historical events are tangible, empirical, and can therefore be quantified by some metric. Cognitive events are notoriously difficult to quantify, which is part of the reason why the notion of final causes (purpose, aim, intention) dropped out of causal explanations in modern science. Events that leave an empirical trace or record of some kind are not the same thing as a cognitive event, nor is (historical) event-causality the same thing as (cognitive) agent-causality.

Thus while Leithart’s qualifying example is true, it’s not relevant to the shooter-assassin example his earlier argument rests on, nor the counterexample I’ve provided, because it involves a causal relation between an historical event and a later cognitive event, rather than two causally related historical events. The attempt to save the argument by nuancing or qualifying it remains unpersuasive, because it rests upon an equivocation that conflates historical events with cognitive events. Moreover, lurking in the background of the argument is another category mistake that virtually collapses the distinction between history-as-time and history-as-event, which makes it difficult to clarify just what Leithart means by the word “event”.

As noted at the outset of this essay, there are larger reasons why one should be concerned with Leithart’s argument, namely, the claim that later historical events not only modify our description of earlier events, but change the events themselves (an ontological rather than noetic claim). This claim forms the basis for Leithart’s model for understanding what happens when OT events are brought in relation with NT events (or if one prefers, how we should understand the NT use of the OT). Thus he writes that “by delivering Isaac from the knife, Yahweh promised Abraham that his seed would rise from the dead. Once Jesus rises from the dead, though, that earlier event becomes something more specific. It becomes a promise of Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah…”.[8]

Although the example from Genesis 22 might sound as though Leithart is making the softer claim that “the event does not change, but we do not know what the event was or what it meant until Jesus rises from the dead,” this is not the case. In a clarifying footnote he makes it clear that he prefers to argue for the “stronger version of the thesis” which maintains that Christ’s rising from the dead not only changes the meaning of the Genesis 22 event, but the event itself.[9]

Inherent in this argument appears to be the premise that the original historical sense of the event is not a promise of Jesus until Jesus rises from the dead, at which point it retrospectively becomes a different event. Trypho would like this,[10] but it is doubtful whether many in the early church (or even the apostles) would agree with Leithart on this point.

There are also broader theological and ontological considerations involved in the issues raised by Leithart’s approach to this issue. The question is not whether the attribution of new meanings generated by new historical events affects what it means to refer to earlier historical events that are causally related to these new and later events. Surely they do affect what it means to refer to earlier events. The question is whether the new meanings they generate affect earlier historical events in an ontologically constitutive way.

The traditional view of these matters prior to the birth of modernity and the age of Kantian constructivism was that historical meaning does not determine historical referent per se, though it may reshape our understanding of that referent. Essential properties of events, both theological and historical, determine their meaning, but more precisely, the essential properties of historical events as mediated by a historical tradition linked to the original ontological referent, whether the latter be theological, creational, or historical in nature. Here changing historical contexts and the events that accompany them are allowed a positive and expansive role, but not an ontologically constitutive role. They may change our understanding of a theological or historical referent, but they do not define or constitute that referent per se.

It is an object’s thingness, or character as a thing over against other things, that enables reference to do its objective work upon us (rather than an exhaustive or unrevisable description of that thing).[11] This is because theological, creational, and historical realities have ontological force, independently of our ability to give either exhaustive or unrevisable definitions of them. What enables us to pick them out or identify what we are talking about is not a fully accurate dictionary definition, but the power resident in their ontological givenness, which exercises a certain ontological pressure that makes possible our ability to refer to them, that is, to pick them out and differentiate them from other realities.

Thus we do not have to be able to give an account of the essential properties of an historical event before we can refer to it, because of its ability to impress itself upon us. God makes use of additional means to mediate these effects (e.g., ecclesial tradition, changing historical contexts, reception history), but the ability of historical events to accomplish this is not dependent in the first instance upon those means, but upon their essential and inherent properties.

In an account of theological realism, biblically construed, theological, creational, and providential realities share in this ontological givenness, which is to say that the historical events testified to in Scripture exert a pressure on our understanding of those events even as we gain new understandings of them through changing historical events and contexts. For this reason, it is only partially true to state, as Leithart does, that “stories can only be told by those who know the end.”[12] Hirsch’s Cartesian dictum that “meaning is an affair of consciousness”[13] undergirds the notion that Old Testament Christology is grounded in the reader’s perception of an end,[14] or a retrospective “second reading” of the Old Testament motivated by the reader’s grasp of its telos.[15] This turn toward inwardness privileges human cognition and readerly perception as the connecting link between past and present, rather than God’s establishment of the end from the beginning, as testified to in Isaiah 40-48 (41:22, 42:9, 43:9, 18, 46:9, 48:3, 6). The effect is to subjectivize Old Testament Christology by making its efficacy depend upon an act of human cognition, rather than God’s providential ordering of things. Evangelical modernity bears witness to a wide variety of these “christotelisms,” and the problems they raise for a Christian reading of the Old Testament are also anticipated, at least to some extent, in the premodern church.[16]

However, in the Old Testament’s construction of its witness to Christ, rendered at many times and in various ways (cf. Hebrews 1:1), the theological function of human perception is not primary, but derivative, resting upon and therefore presupposing God’s providential ordering of things in order to operate. Meaning is an affair of providence in the first instance, and this means that the reader’s perception of an end occurs within a providentially constructed witness that not only precedes that perception in time, but also provides a prior context of recognition, grammar, or rule by which to individuate and identify the ‘end’ being perceived.

On this approach, the reader’s perception of a telos is a referential judgment enabled by the theological pressures inherent in the original sense of Israel’s scriptures, a sense which is capable of speaking a word to its own day, as well as a generation to come, because it finds its origin in Christ the eternal word and archē, the Beginning of the LORD’s way in creation and the human history that followed (Gen. 1:1-3, Prov. 8:22, John 1:1-3, Col. 1:15-17). Thus history’s significance is not simply a matter of what comes at its telos or end,[17] but also the ontological pressures at work in its beginning. The arche of the Word is already at work in history before it reaches its telos, and so the story starts before the end, even though the end enables a fuller or new understanding of the story. It is this prior, ontological pressure that enables a ‘reading forward’ of the Old Testament,[18] such that the New Testament use of the Old is not merely a Christian backdraft on the Old Testament,[19] but a second “accorded” testimony given to bear witness to the new historical events of Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and exaltation (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

  1. Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009).
  2. The argument is found on pages 40-44 of the book, along with illustrative examples.
  3. Leithart, Deep Exegesis, 42, emphasis added.
  4. Leithart claims that Danto’s position is essentially equivalent to E.D. Hirsch’s distinction between meaning and significance. Hirsch’s distinction between meaning and significance does have its problems, but I cannot enter into that issue here. Leithart’s own position is heavily dependent upon an essay by David Weberman titled “The Nonfixity of the Historical Past” in The Review of Metaphysics 50 (1997): 749-68.
  5. Leithart, Deep, 42.
  6. Leithart, Deep, 43.
  7. Leithart, Deep, 43-44.
  8. Leithart, Deep, 44, emphasis added; cf. his similar argument with regard to the historical event of the exodus from Egypt in Hosea 11 and Matthew 2 on page 47.
  9. Leithart, Deep, 219 n. 15.
  10. When Justin argues that the OT proclaims Christ on its own terms, Trypho counters that this is fine as an act of external reception, but it does not arise from the OT’s literal or original sense. Justin argues the contrary. The danger is that Leithart’s argument sits closer to Trypho’s assertion than Justin’s Christian conviction. On the debate between Trypho and Justin, see Bogdan Bucur in “Justyn Martyr’s Exegesis of Biblical Theophanies,” Theological Studies 75:1 (2014): 34-51. I am grateful to Christopher Seitz for this observation and reference.
  11. Cf. the discussion of realist theories of reference in Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 118-41, esp. Kripke’s ‘causal’ theory of reference on 127-28.
  12. Leithart, Deep, 41.
  13. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 48.
  14. Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 152-63.
  15. Francis Watson “The Old Testament as Christian Scripture: A Response to Professor Seitz,” Scottish Journal of Theology 52 (1999): 227-32, esp. 229-230; cf. also N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 115.
  16. See James S. Preus, From Shadow to Promise: Old Testament Interpretation from Augustine to the Young Luther (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969).
  17. This is the defining feature of Whig historiography, which privileges the primacy of the present for interpreting the past—an approach to historiography in which the voice of the past is colonized by the present and ceases to pressure the present on its own terms. While I’m sure that Leithart disagrees with this historiography, the lineaments of it are present in his approach in his reading of the relation between Genesis 22 and the historical event of Christ’s resurrection.
  18. See Don Collett, “Reading Forward: The Old Testament and Retrospective Stance,” Pro Ecclesia 24:2 (2015): 178-96.
  19. See Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974). Frei notes that for Calvin, the OT derives its forward motion from its own literal sense, and not from “the wedding of that forward motion with a separate backward perspective upon it” (36), that is, from its correlation with a retrospective stance which then exercises a sort of Christian backdraft upon the OT.