Review of The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets by Christopher Seitz

Christopher Seitz has recently written The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets: The Achievement of Association in Canon Formation. This book is essentially an extension of the argument begun in his 2007 book, Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets. (If you are not already somewhat familiar with this work, check out the reviews by Ben Johnson, Phil Sumpter, Julia M. O’Brien, and Michael B. Shepherd.) Moreover, it seems to be a stepping stone to a book he is writing, The Character of Christian Scripture: Canon and the Rule of Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, forthcoming).

In The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets [TGFP], Seitz addresses the subject of canon formation using Israel’s prophetic corpus as the key that unlocks many of the mysteries that surround our understanding of canon: “A goodly fellowship of the prophets lies at the heart of OT canon formation” (103). The term ‘fellowship’ paired with the term ‘association’ in the subtitle are the key words to Seitz’ thesis. Those familiar with Prophesy and Hermeneutics [PH] are aware of the significance that Seitz places on how the prophetic books have been arranged and how that arrangement highlights associations embedded within the larger product that prove hermeneutically significant. He spends a significant portion of each book (PH and TGFP) discussing the history of the treatment of the prophets, how they have been removed from their canonical location and related to one another by means of a reconstructed historical timeline. In PH, he demonstrates the insufficiencies of this approach and offers an alternative approach to an introduction of the prophets, one that recognizes the significance of the association established in the canonical shape of the prophets, particularly Isaiah and the Book of the Twelve. In TGFP, he picks up this discussion, particularly to examine how the intentionality behind the structuring of the prophetic corpus enlightens our understanding of the process of canonical formation.

Of course, those familiar with the earliest arrangement of the biblical books knows that there is not one definitive canonical arrangement. The three-fold arrangement of the Hebrew Bible adopted by the Jews and used by early Christians (c.f. Mt 23:5; Lk 24:44) is different than the four-fold arrangement of printed English Bibles in significant ways, and these arrangements themselves are not necessarily monolithic in how each individual book is arranged within the larger structure. Seitz insufficiently addressed this in PH, but he has developed a sophisticated argument in TGFP defending the three-fold arrangement and suggesting that “when the fundamental logic and grammar of the tripartite structure has been grasped, it is entirely possible to understand how the fourfold order arose and indeed how a wide variety of listings emerged” (123).

In the three-fold arrangement, the Law and the Prophets achieve a stable order. I assume there is no discussion of Genesis-Deuteronomy because no variance in the order of these five books exists. The represent the most stable achievement of association (evidenced in both the three- and four-fold arrangements). They are followed by the former prophets which achieve their association with the Torah by means of Deuteronomy, particularly the prophetic portrayal of Moses. Additionally, association among the former prophets could be supported by their common approach to Israel’s history, often cast in terms of the Deuteronomistic History. To approach the achievement of association within the latter prophets, Seitz begins by observing the association achieved by the compilers/editors of the Book of the Twelve which he sees as comparable to the association achieved by the compilers/editors of Isaiah. He spells this out in much greater detail in PH. The Twelve, comparable in size to one of the three, is then affiliated with the three. “The hard work of creating a twelve-book prophetic achievement, such as we find in the Latter Prophets, is also happening in loose association with the History and the Three, such that a coherent prophetic corpus is emerging” (91). And from this emerges the Law and the prophets,

It is not necessary, according to Seitz, to see the same level of stability established by the writings as by the Law and the Prophets. “The Writings are a distinctive category. The character of their internal arrangement is different in kind from the Prophets and evolved in distinction to the accomplishment of association noted in the prophetic division” (118). The way in which the writings achieve association and join themselves to the canon is not through association one with another, but through their association with the Law and the Prophets. “Writings derive their logic, canonically, from being external to, independent of, but in loose association with, not one another, but the individual books or mature arrangements of the Law and the Prophets . . . . In either the Jewish or Christian context, however, the authority of the individual writings presupposes a prior stability and logic in the books of the Law and the Prophets” (99-100). There are significant implications to this thesis. First is that a canon need not be closed in order for it to function as a canon. “It is meaningful to speak of an ‘open canon,” if by that is meant the capacity of the Law and the Prophets to function as canon, no matter the precise number or order of the books in the third distinctive section” (30). “Closure does not authority make” (64). Second is that the canonical development of the writings “anticipates” the canonical development of the New Testament: “What the Writings judge to be true of the Law and the Prophets, so also the NT judges to be true both of the Law and the Prophets and of this third category of books” (100).

It becomes clear now of Seitz’ larger goal (which is actually made explicit in the first chapter of his book). Understanding the achievement of association that produces the canon of the Hebrew Bible becomes foundational for understanding the logic of the canonical formation of the New Testament. The following quote follows a discussion of those who see the canonical formation of the Hebrew Bible as influenced by the canonical formation of the New Testament.

Those who believe that the OT’s canonical character is intimately tied up with that of the NT are correct, but they have the influence running in the wrong direction. The OT does not accomplish a canonical authority in the context of churchly reflections on a rule of faith or in the debates and evolving consensus about the way the NT may properly be received as canon in fixed form. The OT’s canonical form and status are the assisting means by which a collateral apostolic witness emerges and finds its structure and authority. The rule of faith is that appeal ot the christological and (incipiently) trinitarian claims of the OT, such as we find these in the accordance statements of the evolving traditions of the apostolic writings, en route to becoming a NT.

Elsewhere, Seitz describes the rule of faith as “a correlating of the gospel with the stable and authoritative claims of the scriptures of Israel, seen now as a first testament and crucial foundational witness” (97) and as “an argument based on the scriptures of Israel for maximal continuity between Christ’s work and the Scriptures that promised his appearing and that spoke of his activity in figure, in word to patriarch and prophet, in moral exhortation, and in the giving of the law–all under a network of types within the OT itself” (124; cf. 131). As I close out my presentation of Seitz’ argument, it is appropriate to quote his final paragraph:

As a result of the present work, my hope is that the grounding character of the scriptures of Israel will be better appreciated, especially at a time when historical developmentalism forms the overdetermined backdrop against which we read both the Old and the New Testaments of one Christian Scripture. Even within the maturation of the first scriptural witness, Law and Prophets are not successive phases in a history of religion but belong together as a reciprocal account of God’s providential work in creation, law, and historical action in Israel and the nations, including future promise, the fulfillment of God’s righteous will, and new creation. This same dynamic governs the way the Old and the New now work together, a single canonical totality dynamically related and mutually informing. The New is not a phase of development that grounds the Old but rather a statement of the Old’s abiding sense and final meaning, perceived now afresh within its own plain-sense deliverances and helping to interpret and ground the New’s meaning and final purpose as well.

The book is 132 pages long, includes footnotes and a single author/topical index in the back (no bibliography). It can easily be read on a lazy Saturday. Those who have not encountered Seitz’ style before may have some difficulty. I agree with Julia O’Brien who observed in her review of PH that Seitz has a tendency to be “uneven and repetitious,” and attributes this to the fact that the book is drawn from “previous public lectures and publications.” TGFP was also born out of a series of lectures Seitz twice delivered and suffers from similar stylistic problems.

Nevertheless, Seitz has written an important work, one which has the potential to accomplish a number of things. He has persuasively articulated a concept of canon that need not focus upon a closed and definitive list in order for the canon to be operative. The canon can under go changes and additions and remain authoritative throughout. This extends not only to the addition of the writings but also to the development of the New Testament. The proposal put forth by Seitz defines what it means to conceive  a Christian canon, and yet Jews will find in Seitz’ proposal an equally satisfying way of understanding the Hebrew Bible. Thus, Seitz has opened up another avenue for increased dialogue between Jewish  and Christian scholars. Having been raised in a characteristically Lutheran tradition  as it pertains to understanding Law (which is then confused with the OT), I particularly appreciate how Seitz’ proposal makes it possible to bring the two testaments together as a single Christian canon and recognizes that the NT achieves its canonical status by its association with the OT. This book should make its way into the hands scholars of all stripes including both Jew and Christian alike, rabbi’s, pastors, Bible teachers and anyone who interacts with either the Hebrew Bible or the Old and New Testaments. Everyone has something to gain from reading this book, so get your hands on a copy now read it. You will not regret it.

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4 thoughts on “Review of The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets by Christopher Seitz

  1. Well, you inspired me to order it in the post. I find Seitz the most exhilirating of authors. Have you heard his excellent online lecture on “ontology” and the plain sense (my paraphrase of the title)? This is the direction Biblical studies needs to go, and I think it provides a necessary supplement to so-called “synchronic” reading.

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