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.

Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism part 2 – Polyvalence

The first part of the book is entitled “Meaning” and is made up of three chapters, the first of these is “Polyvalence” in which Powell discusses the theory underpinning Reader-response criticism.

He offers the following definition of polyvalence: “In literary theory Polyvalence refers to the multiplicity of potential meanings that seems to be present in any communication event.” In other words, what history and daily experience teach us is that texts (of all kinds) “can mean different things to different people. They can even mean different things to the same person when they are read or experienced under diverse circumstances.” (17) It is a simple fact that people respond differently to movies, stories, jokes, songs, etc. Who is reading, when, where, and why, make all the difference.

He takes up Wolfgang Iser’s theory [1] that all stories have “gaps” that readers fill in the act of reading; imaginatively filling in un-narrated details, seeking clarity from what is left ambiguous, making connections not explicit in the narrative. (16) According to Powell “Polyvalent interpretations result from readers filling gaps in divergent ways.” (17) He then discusses “four factors that influence how readers fill gaps.” (17)

Social Location – One’s social location is constituted by such factors as age, gender, career, social class, income, education, personality, health, the list can go on and on. In other words, what makes you you, the particulars that influence our perceptions and experiences.

Reading Strategy – Powell describes reading strategy through a few examples, but to keep this post short I will note only the last. He gives the example of a women who each morning reads a passage of Scripture “expecting God to speak to her.” (19, the passage, Isaiah 55:1, is the first illustration so far employing a non-narrative text) The result is that she discerns that God wants her to carry out a very specific act that is only very loosely connected to the text. He contrasts this with his typical reading strategy which pays close attention to the literary and historical contexts of the text, with her reading which “looks for direct existential engagement.” (19)

Choice of Empathy – Readers typically “identify” with certain characters in a story and their “experience” of the narrative is determined by this. This usually occurs without thought or deliberation, influenced by such factors as social location and reading strategy. While this can result in the reader elevating minor points or even missing “what the author would have regarded as the “main point” of the tale,” for Powell this “does not constitute misinterpretation” because “readers are not constrained by authorial intent.” (22)

Conceptions of Meaning – Powell outlines and contrasts two conceptions of meaning:(23)

Meaning as message. The meaning of a text may be described in essentially cognitive terms. Understanding the meaning of a text entails identification of the point or points that are being made therein.

Meaning as effect. The meaning of a text may be described in emotive or affective terms. Understanding the meaning of a text involves recognition of its impact on those who receive it.

The former tends to be author oriented and the latter reader oriented. These are not mutually exclusive conceptions, but at least in terms of narratives, the former does not do justice to the genre. The parables of Jesus, for example, cannot be reduced to a message because it is in their form as a story that they function to impact the reader. “The narrative form of a story—it’s characters, plot, settings, and rhetoric—are as integral to its meaning as any message(s) its author may hope it conveys.” (27) The field of biblical studies has privileged meaning as message, Reader-response criticism “advocates” for meaning as effect.

Powell concludes the chapter by stressing the importance of this last factor for interpretation:

“The mere fact that people define meaning differently opens the door to polyvalence. And if meaning can (I would say should) sometimes be defined in terms of effect, that open door is thrown wide. Authors might intend to convey more than one point in a text, but there are limits to how many points can reasonably be attributed to such intention. Reader-oriented meaning-as-effect assumes a potentially unlimited range of meaning. Every individual reader may be effected differently.” (27)

Now for some comments. While Powell states that polyvalence occurs with all forms of communication, all but one of his examples/illustrations so far have been narratives, typically films. Something else needs to be said regarding different genres where Iser’s theory of “gaps” is not so fitting. I can easily see how social location, reading strategy, and conceptions of meaning would contribute to a plurality of interpretations of NT letters (or any writing actually), but not in terms of gap filling.

In terms of the one non-narrative example so far, Powell refers to the woman’s engagement with Isaiah 55:1 and the guidance she received as an interpretation of the passage. But I do not think this is an appropriate label, and am not sure that she would use the langauge of interpretation to describe what she was doing either.  But then perhaps this is because of my own understanding of what “interpretation” should signify. Powell’s use seems to be more inclusive of various reading strategies. The reason I note this is that diverse reading strategies come with diverse objectives/goals/aims which I would argue requires us to clearly place them in separate categories in order to avoid ambiguities which otherwise allow for overly general claims to be made, about polyvalence for example, that would otherwise clearly be untenable. [2] This brings me back to the previous comment on the application of Powell theory to non-narrative texts.

Finally, in regards to the two conceptions of meaning (meaning as message and meaning as effect), which of these  conceptions belongs to Powell’s definition of polyvalence as “the multiplicity of potential meanings that seems to be present in any communication event.” Are we talking about a multiplicity of messages or effects? I think that Powell would put the accent on the latter (while not excluding the former), [3] and that we need to recognize this when seeking to assess the theory.

[1] On Iser’s theory see Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zoncervan, 1992), 515-524

[2] Similar reservations could be made in regards to his use of meaning. However, Powell is being somewhat descriptive in his use of the term (especially in regards to the two conceptions), a term which is used to mean many different (though related) things. Powell is very inclusive in his use of this term to, and in the next two chapters will explore through two experiments that he carried out, how various conceptions of meaning (as well as the other factors that influence gap filling) work themeselves out in practice.

[3] His reference to communication as an “event” firmly includes the reader, whereas refering to communication as an act might cut off the reader by considering communication complete with the author’s production of a text.

 

The Historical Character of Christianity

The uniqueness and the scandal of the Christian religion rests on the mediation of revelation through historical events. Christianity is not just a code for living or a philosophy of religion. It is rooted in real events of history. To some people this is scandalous because it means the truth of Christianity is inexplicably bound up with the truth of certain historical facts. And if those facts should be disproved, Christianity would be false. This, however, is what makes Christianity unique because, unlike other world religions, modern man has a means of actually verifying Christianity’s truth by historical evidence.

George E. Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection (Downers Grove: Eerdmans, 1975), quoted in Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (Baker, 1998), p. 24 [im not sure which book this page number is from…]

Diversity and Contradiction in the OT

Some quarters of biblical scholarship have exaggerated supposed contradiction and diversity within the Old Testament, others have denied it altogether. But there is a certain amount of it there. Genuine contradictions do occur, still, much of the diversity does not amount to mutual opposition. Given the emphasis placed upon diversity and contradiction in recent scholarship, John Goldingay provides a helpful and revealing analysis of the “degrees of diversity and forms of contradiction” in the Old Testament. Here is the four-fold typology here uses for his analysis:[1]

  • Formal Contradiction – “Formal contradiction involves a difference at the level of words which is not a difference at the level of substance.” (16)
  • Contextual Contradiction – “Contextual contradiction denotes a difference reflecting the variety in circumstances which different statements address.” (19)
  • Substantial Contradiction – “Substantial contradiction involves a true divergence in viewpoint on the part of the speakers whose disagreement is neither merely verbal nor merely contextual.” (21)
  • Fundamental Contradiction – “Fundamental contradiction denotes a disagreement which is a matter of substance and which indicates a basic disharmony at the level of “ethical stance” or “religious outlook”.” (24)

Much of the evidence for contradiction marshalled by scholars falls in the first two categories.

[1] Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 15-25

Rough Thoughts on the Gospel

What is the Gospel? This is perhaps the most important question we could ever ask, for the answer we give shapes all that we do and are as Christians (At least it should!).

The gospel focused on the individual

In my experience the most pervasive ‘gospel’ presented in New Zealand (and i suspect in the West in general) is characteristically individualistic. It is typical to focus on the individual or personal aspect of God’s redemptive mission. It is the news of God’s love for you enacted in Jesus’ death on the cross. Of your personal relationship with God. Of your eternal future in heaven rather than hell.

The consequences

This ‘positioning’ of the individual at the center/forefront of the gospel neglects and pushes the cosmic and social dimensions of God’s redemptive mission to the periphery/background. Furthermore, the cosmic scope is distorted and shrunk. The ‘eschaton’, the summing up of God’s purposes for creation in the future is no longer seen as the establishment of God’s reign over all creation, the presence of his glory throughout, and moral, social, and physical transformation of humankind. Instead the eschaton, if it comes into view at all, becomes the moment of final individual judgment where ones eternity in ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ begins. More often than not this event is located at the point of death (‘where will you go when you die?’).

An individualizing of the gospel thus has the effect of distorting both ecclesiology (in belief and practice) and eschatology.

This coincides with a concentration on the cross and a neglect of the proleptic character of Jesus’ resurrection which, as a re-affirmation of the goodness of creation, grounds God’s promise of the redemptive transformation of creation, not its abandonment.

Perhaps the most destructive consequence is that where the ‘gospel’ is about God’s forgiveness for my sin and the resultant personal relationship between me and him, from the get go we can get the idea that it is about what God has done and can do for me. It is then all too easy to incorporate God into my life rather than his incorporating me into His mission to the world.

I have heard many testimonies where the believer expresses their joy at now having God on their side. Now, lets not get this wrong, God’s love for us extends to all aspects of our lives. But their is something fundamentally wrong about the orientation to life which is expressed in such a testimony.

The gospel in eschatological perspective

Perhaps in evangelism we should begin with the cosmic dimensions of God’s mission, which will then provide the proper context for the individual dimensions of God’s mission. Rather than announcing God’s forgiveness for the individual, we announce God’s forgiveness for the world. Rather then inviting one to accept Jesus as ‘personal Lord and Savior’ we need to invite people to embrace Jesus’ vision of God’s reign as Lord of the world. The individual aspects should not be lost in a violent swing of the pendulum, but the cosmic dimensions should provide the proper context for the individual dimensions.

The decision to follow Jesus is therefore an acceptance of God’s invitation to be part of his promised future and to become a part of its anticipation in the present through the power of His Holy Spirit.

A presentation of the gospel with a proper eschatological perspective (orientation towards God’s promised future) may prevent the assimilation of ‘God’ into ones life, as often occurs atleast in part because of an individually oriented gospel (if not only because it does not challenge consumer culture). One’s life is transformed by the call toward’s God’s promised future by the power of His Spirit among his people in the present. This ‘call towards promised future’ replaces whatever orientation to life was previously formative for one’s life.

Your thoughts please…