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.