How fitting is the term ‘Theological Interpretation’?

Theological Interpretation is currently all the rage. In a way akin to ‘missional’ (which still has currency) and ‘worldview’ (which is now somewhat outdated), Theological Interpretation is currently at the height of publishing fashion. My question is, how fitting is the label Theological Interpretation for the actual task or project that is being refered to?

In terms of goals, we can compare it with what we might call Historical Criticism which tries to look ‘behind’ the text in order to learn about author and audience, and Literary Criticism which looks at the text to understand and appreciate the way the text is put together and works. [1] In contrast Theological Interpretation seeks to read the text as an instrument of discipleship, to have the reader transformed by the text (so the term Scripture which is often attached). [2]

Lets look at the term theological first. This draws attention both to the fact that the Bible–to make a very general claim–is primaily about God, and that our concern as the Church is with growing in the knowledge of God which results in our transformation. 

I think this works as a label in combination with interpretation, if by interpretation here we do not mean the study of individual passages so that we are always looking for what a text might communicate or at least imply about God (such an activity is suggested by the term ‘theological exegesis’ and I think is better suited to this term), but rather a larger project within which our study of indivudal passages and writings needs to be placed. But this latter meaning is not the most natural way to use the term interpretation. Furthermore, within discussions on Theological Interpretation the term ‘interpretation’ is often extended beyond its normal usage to include something like the embodiment of the fruits of interpretation in the life of the Christian community and beyond. Our acted appropriation of Scripture is our interpretation of it.

Interestingly Theological Interpretation stands out in terminology from literary or historically focused study because of the term ‘interpretation’ where the others typically have ‘criticism.’ [3] Criticism more naturally  suggests a larger project (within the field of biblical studies and theology at least). Might it be more appropriate to append this latter term so that we are talking about Theological Criticism. It ain’t pretty but would this be a more fitting term? Or are some of the connotations of ‘criticism’ too negative (and perhaps too elitist) for it to be an attractive label for the church whom the project/task is for? And would this suite the acted appropiation that is often included within the project?

Your thoughts please…

[1] Literary criticism is also used to refer to reader focused study such as reader-response criticism where the focus is upon the varied ways readers have interpreted a text and what this can tell us about both the reader and the text. I have simply chosen terms to help illustrate differences.

[2] Note that this a contrast of goals and not necessarily methods and questions asked. I believe that if Theological Interpretation is going to achieve its goal then it will need to appropriate many of the methods and findings of interpretation which has focused on historical and literary questions.


2 thoughts on “How fitting is the term ‘Theological Interpretation’?

  1. I’m not thrilled with the term. To me the label seems to cloud the fact that you’ve rightly pointed out in your closing paragraph – that it is not actually a method in its own right, but could be filled with any eclectic assortment of approaches, so long as they have the goal of discipleship, and preferably can point to patristic precedence.


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