Interest in Theological Interpretation

In late 2010 I published a short essay on the nature of Theological Interpretation in the pages section of the blog. The number of views this page has received since its publication has increased year on year.

2011 – 135 views

2012 – 362 views

2013 – 430 views

2014 – 573 views

2015 – 618 views

The increase between 2014 and 2015 is only 45 at this stage but the year is not over yet, and October received a record 121 views.

These stats are not great given internet standards, but I think they suggest there is an increasing interest in the theological interpretation of Scripture not only within the Academy but within the Church. Has this been your experience?


The Priority of Theological Interpretation in NT Studies

In part three of his 1994 book Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship,[a] Ben F. Meyer addresses the issue of the theological interpretation of the NT.

Considering the variety of approaches and focuses in NT studies in general, and the legitimate reasons individual scholars have for pursuing these, Meyer writes:

Still, it is somewhat incumbent on the community of New Testament scholars to make sure that interpretation, as the primary and main task of New Testament studies, is successfully cultivated. The scholarly community, while fully open to literary, historical, social-scientific, and other modes of analysis, should not be taken in by the proposal that such analyses replace interpretation, that they be accepted as functional surrogates of interpretation; or that ideological analyses (Marxist, Freudian, Nietzschean, etc.) be accorded the dogmatic status that ideologues (Marxist, Freudian, Nietzschean, etc.) regularly claim for them.” (148)

Interpretation and analysis should not be treated as “on par.” (149) This is so for at least two reasons:

“texts have a prima facie claim on the reader, namely, to be interpreted in accord with their intended sense. This is not an exclusivist claim, but it is a claim to priority. In principle, interpretation is prior to analysis, which serves or supposes it. Religious literature calls for interpretation alert to religious meanings and values.” (149)

Firstly, if we are to apply models of analysis or ask questions beyond the horizons of the NT texts, we first gain a good grasp of the sense of those texts.[b] Secondly, interpretation worth its salt, which intends to be objective on the score of interpreting the NT writings, must attend to and not neglect their theology, for they are inherently theological in nature and purpose. NT Interpretation, then, is always in this sense theological interpretation, and such interpretation must be prioritized over analysis in the field of NT studies.

While Meyer writes in relation to NT studies, the same could be said for the entire field of biblical studies. When scholarship becomes captivated by concerns beyond the horizons of the Scriptures themselves, it is hard to image Christian leaders looking to the academy to resource their churches engagement with Scripture. Some would argue that Biblical Scholarship should not exist to serve the Church or God for that matter. But I disagree, and thankfully receive whatever resources are produced to this end or otherwise.

[a] Ben F. Meyer, Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship: A Primer in Critical Realist HermeneuticsCollegeville; Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1994.

[b] This is not to say that such approaches do not themselves in turn inform or add to interpretation in Meyer’s sense. But that, not being methods of getting at a texts intended sense themselves, rely upon the prior work of exegesis to clarify their object of inquiry.

Anthropomorphism and Authorial Intent

A while ago I read (and very much enjoyed) Does God Have a Future by Hall and Sanders. [1] At the time (Feb 2011) I wrote down some thoughts which I will now share. The book is essentially an edited version of a series of emails between Sanders and Hall discussing and debating the nature of God’s providence and the issues which surround this. Below my interest is in the discussion of anthropomorphism, metaphor, and accommodation which run throughout the emails, but is especially the focus in chapters 12-15.

The thought occurred to me that both Sanders’ and Hall’s (but Hall’s more so) overriding concern to interpret and synthesize the Scriptures for a theology of God is leading them to neglect the significance of authorial intention and audience competence. What we need to be asking is what was the author intending to communicate when ascribing thoughts and emotions to God,[2] and what we may imagine his initial audience would have found intelligible. What would the author would have thoughtfully expected to have been able to communicate to his audience in such a straightforward and simple way (such as short statements in narratives and prophetic oracles), without providing any philosophical or theological clarification.

Hall seeks to interpret texts which ascribe human characteristics to God (such as changes of mind) through the framework of a specific doctrine of God (“Classical Theism”), and does so by philosophically, hermeneutically, and theologically sophisticated and rigorous means. But apart from such means and such a prior doctrine, are we to imagine that such a reading against the “face value” of such passages would be probable or even possible for the envisaged audience? And what of the author? We would have to posit that he too held to such a doctrine of God and believed that the audience shared this understanding and hence were positioned to interpret the text accordingly.

If the response comes that we need to interpret passages alongside others within the Canon (and possibly tradition), then what of authorial intent? Is it only important for some passages and not others? How do we determine which become hermeutical keys for interpreting the rest? Surely we would need to start somewhere to gain a fixed point of reference, and this somewhere would have to be the authorial intention of a passage or set of passages. For me authorial intention (as much as we can establish this) is the aim of exegesis, and exegesis is the foundation of theological and practical appropriation of Scripture.

If we do consistently seek authorial intent, maybe we will end up with a more fragmented and varied set of Scriptures than the tightly coherent book which we would like. But,  if that is what we’ve got then so be it. Thoughts…?

[1] Christopher A. Hall and John Sanders, Does God Have a Future? A Debate on Divine Providence. Baker Academic, 2003.

[2] The IVP Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms defines “anthropomorphism” as ‘A figure of speech used by writers of Scripture in which human physical characteristics are attributed to God for the sake of illustrating an important point.’ Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), 11. While this definition refers to “physical characteristics” and mentions “face” and “arm” as examples, within contemporary theology the concept of Anthropomorphism has sometimes been extended (mistakenly I think) to include human emotions and cognitive acts  being applied to God (such as changing one’s mind). It is such things which are often the focus of debates about God’s foreknowledge and providence.

The Noetic Effects of Sin

Sin is not only a moral, social, and relational problem; it is an epistemological problem as well. While we often refer to actions which are contrary to God’s will as sins, Sin is greater than the some of these parts. Sin is the condition of the distortion of our entire being which manifests itself in our thinking, feeling, and acting. It is an individual and a corporate condition, manifesting itself not only in the actions of individuals, but of groups, societies, cultures. It is clear then that Sin affects our reasoning and hence our knowing. This is often referred to as the noetic effects of sin.

In his article ‘How Sin Affects Scholarship: A New Model,’[1] Stephen K. Moroney presents and offers a critique of two models of the noetic effects of sin represented in the teachings of Abraham Kuyper and Emil Brunner, followed by a constructive proposal of his own.

While Kuyper and Brunner present two different models, they share a crucial similarity. Both Kuyper and Brunner posited (in somewhat different ways) that the noetic effects of sin are felt most when it comes to matters of theology and ethics, and least (if at all) when it comes to matters of observation and logic (e.g. natural sciences, mathematics). The dependence of Christians on Revelation/Scripture for the former sets us radically apart from all others, whose efforts to establish truth in such matters will necessarily rely on self-sufficient reason and come to err. They both tie sin to reason employed apart from revelation/scripture. As Moroney observes regarding Brunner, ‘Nowhere does he speak of the noetic effects of sin in believer’s thinking. Brunner’s argument is always from the noetic effects of sin to the distinctives of Christian thinking.’ (441) Both Brunner and Kuyper focus on the object of study and ignore the subject doing the studying, apart from what they consider to be the determinative factor; whether the subject is a Christian or not (440). Unfortunately this is a serious shortcoming, reminding me of the way in which “reason” is sometimes set in opposition to “faith” or “revelation.”[2]

In my own words, in these models Sin does not affect the process of reasoning at all, rather, the state of the world as fallen means that we cannot know the truth in matters of theology and ethics apart from God’s revelation. Therefore those outside of Christ will always be “blind” in such matters. It matters then a good deal what we mean by the term “Sin” in this discussion.

Constructive Proposal

Moroney's Model for noetic effects of sin (442)

For his constructive proposal Moroney uses sin to refer both to acts (whether mental, emotional, or physical) that are contrary to Gods will, and the disposition to carry these out. (442, fn.49)

While Moroney agrees with Kuyper and Bruner that sin ‘tends to disturb human thinking about some matters more than other,’ (442; this is represented in “the object of knowledge” column from less (bottom) to more (top)) the noetic effects of sin include the distortion of the process of our thinking, not simply in terms of the sources we employ, but in terms of the influences on our judgments.

Because the noetic effects of sin involves ‘the complex interplay of multiple factors’ as indicated in the diagram, the noetic effects of sin vary from person to person, and it is not possible to ‘forecast exactly’ how sin will distort someone’s thinking. (447) I think this point is very important. When it comes to biblical interpretation, we do not always come to the wrong conclusions because we wish to believe that the text says something, even where the more controversial issues are involved. And we should not assume to or judge that others are doing so lightly. According to Moroney knowledge (however comprehensive) of the factors that shape and influence any particular ‘knowing subject’ is not necessarily enough to determine how sin is affecting someone’s reasoning. Sometimes it is, and we may claim that is very clearly so. But we need to recognize the complexity before rushing to conclusions.

What this should lead us to first and foremost is to a heightened self-awareness and a chastened view of our own success in the pursuit of truth:

‘The reality that sin distorts our thinking reminds us not only of our need to be self-critical and open to others’ corrections but also of our need to humility. If we take the noetic effects of sin seriously, then we are faced with the humbling prospect that this side of heaven some of our beliefs, in particular our beliefs about God… will be erroneous.’ (449)

So it should be clear that the flaws or errors in our thinking (its processes and results) are not always the effect of sin. We all have a capacity to know, to understand, but most of the time this requires effort and work. Understanding and misunderstanding are simply part and parcel of the way in which our thinking/inquiring is designed to function, and I do not think that this is the result of a “fall.” I think it is simply how God has chosen to create us. It is Sin that we introduced into the world which complicates the whole Endeavour.

[1] S.K. Moroney ‘How Sin Affects Scholarship: A New Model,’ Christian Scholar’s Review XXVIII:3 (Spring 1999): 432-451.

[2] “Reason” is not itself a source of knowledge to be set against or alongside of revelation. Rather reason is employed in the persuit of knowledge, whether the source of this knowledge has made it clear (revelation) or whether it needs to be generated through inquiry into that of which knowledge is sought. I realise that the distinction is often made between knowledge gained through revelation and knowledge gained through reason, but here I think the latter term is not entirely appropriate and confuses matters.

TIS or Theological Commentary?

Over at Jesus Creed Scot McKnight has posted a review of a new book edited by R. Michael Allen entitled Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives (T&T Clark, 2011). Scott opens the review by way of some comments regarding the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS).

He writes that ‘the label “theological interpretation of Scripture” suggests a potential problem of interpretation taking precedence over textual observation. Using the label “theological commentary,” however, suggests a different method: theological reflection resulting from attention to and commentary on particular biblical texts.’

I have previously posted some thoughts on the suitability of the term TIS here. I think that the term Theological Commentary employed in this book is better suited to the sort of task we need to undertake; a task that takes historically grounded exegesis seriously, but also the history of doctrine/interpretation and contemporary engagement.

He says that “the contributors were given only a few parameters: exhibit careful exegesis, engage with other canonical texts, and then address the history of interpretation and dogmatic implications.” Sounds like a great way of proceeding with the task I have so far refered to as TIS, and may now refer to as “Theological Commentary.”

Rachel Evans on our Selectivity in Interpreting and Applying Scripture

Rachel Held Evans has been working through Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, and in her latest post she focuses on one of his “subsidiary problems with Biblicism” from chapter 4, “blatantly ignored teachings.” Her conclusion, “we are ALL selective in our interpretation and application of Scripture.” So what are we to do about this? She raises two questions we should be asking: 1) “why do we pick and choose the way that we do?”  and 2) “how should we pick and choose?” She continues:

The truth is, how we “pick and choose” from Scripture often says as much about us as it says about the Bible. So, in a sense, our selective habits can serve an important instructive function in the life of followers of Jesus. What do our selective readings say about ourselves and what we want to read into Scripture? Are we reading with what Peter Rollins calls a “prejudice of love” or are we reading with prejudices of judgment, power, hatred, and fear? What do our hermeneutial impulses say about ourselves? When we approach Scripture, what are we looking for?

We should not confidently assume that how we interpret and what we apply and don’t (and how we do or avoid doing so) is simply correct, and not influenced by our wants and fears (among other factors). I may be deceiving myself, and you may be deceiving yourself. [1] We are often quick to try to explain other people’s interpretations and applications as the result of their presuppositions, and right them off because of this (sadly we often see this in scholarship).  But what about the log in our own eye? The reading of Scripture requires self-awareness and a constant watch on the influence of our own presuppositions that Scripture may call into question, if we let it. This is what Rachel call’s us to in the paragraph cited above.

[1] See my post Self-Deception as Interpreters and Theologians.

Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism part 3 – From theory to practice

The second chapter (“Two Experiments”) illustrates the reality of polyvalence and the influence of social location, reading strategy, empathy, and conceptions of meaning, by way of two experiments which Powell carried out.

For each experiment 100 participants were chosen, 50 clergy and 50 laity (one of each from each church), each were presented with a passage of scripture to read, reflect on briefly, and then answer the question provided. Participants were chosen so that “the distinguishing characteristic would be lay/clergy status.” (29) While the experiments did not prove anything, the results were very suggestive.

For the first experiment, the passage was Mark 7:1-8 and the question was “What does this story mean to you?” For the second, the passage was Luke 3:3-17 and the question was “What does this story mean?”

Powell provides the complete lists of responses for each, as well as detailed analysis and an exploration of possible reasons for the differences observed. Here I will only note a few of the many interesting observations.

Firstly, a vast number of different responses and interpretations were offered. Plurality was observed not only between clergy and laity responses but was very much the case within these groups. I found the number of different interpretation of the stories staggering.

Empathy: In the responses of the first experiment, “Most of the clergy responses indicate empathy with the character of Jesus, while most of the lay responses indicate reader empathy either with Jesus’ disciples or with his audience (the scribes and Pharisees).” (38) Among the clergy not a single participant empathized or identified with the disciples, and among the laity, not a single participant empathized or identified with Jesus.

Reading Strategy: In the responses of the second experiment, the change of question caused a change in the type of response given by the majority of clergy but not from the laity. Whether they were asked to respond with what the story meant to them or what the story simply meant, the laity consistently responded with self-reference. They consistently employed a reader-oriented hermeneutic, where the majority of the clergy employed an author-oriented hermeneutic if they thought it was called for. (53)

“The two words to you made a significant difference for clergy in determining how they responded to the story, but no for laity. The laity demonstrated a tendency to read stories as applicable to themselves with or without prompting; clergy demonstrated an ability to read stories as applicable to themselves when prompted to do so, but they often did not do this unless prompted.” (51-52)

Powell also categorizes the clergy responses in terms of those which understood the question in historical, redactional, and existential senses (52-53). All worth looking at (so get the book!).

Conceptions of meaning: Powell also notes how the laity communicated how the text effected them with a far greater frequency than the clergy. The clergy responses were far more cognitive in both experiments (54-55).

Powell concludes with some implications for preaching (55-56), but you will have to pick up a copy of the book to get the benefit of those.

Now for some comments. I would loved to have seen a third experiment in which, the laity at least, were given another story from a gospel and asked ‘what did this story mean to the author?’ I would be interested to see if some sort of self-reference and application persisted in their responses. It would also have been good to repeat the experiments with some non-narrative texts to see if these would a generate a lesser-degree of plurality in responses. Perhaps we will come accross such experiments in the upcoming chapters.

One conclusion that Powell draws from these findings is that the author-oriented hermeneutic may be the “less natural” of the two, and that it must be “taught and developed.” (56) I don’t think he is on the money with this one. I think that the reader-oriented hermeneutic has to be learnt as well, it does not come naturally, and its prevalence among the laity is due to a number of factors including the influence of popular Christian literature. I may be missing the point, but I can’t imagine how it would be natural to read an ancient letter (which was addressed to someone else and addresses the specifics of others lives) or descriptive narration of ancient history such as we find in the gospels, as speaking directly to oneself. [1] Such a reading strategy is certainly due to the presence of the document in the Bible and certain conceptions of the nature of the Bible and how God speaks to us through/in/by it. The first part of Christian Smith’s recent book The Bible Made Impossible is somewhat helpful here.

[1] The NT letters and the Gospels are more than ancient letters and historical narratives, but the fact that they are these makes the point.