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.

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.”

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.

Reflections following the Colloquium on Theological Interpretation

Just to venture some thoughts freshly stimulated by the Colloquium on Theological Interpretation held over the past couple of days at Laidlaw College in Auckland New Zealand. I was only able to attend the second day, but nevertheless have come away with fresh insights and questions, and a delight to be a part of the conversation. Daniel Kirk has offered some of his own thoughts at Storied Theology, and presented a paper which I unfortunately was not present for but hear was very helpful.

At the close of the colloquium Joel B. Green noted how it was the first colloquium on biblical studies to begin with prayer that he had attended in a very long time. This was both a shock and saddening, but at the same time indicated the ‘life’ that was present at this colloquium and showed that what took place was actually carried out in the Spirit of TI itself.

Some thoughts…

  • What we need is study of the Biblical documents in line with their nature as confessional documents intended to proclaim, teach and shape lives. Perhaps recapturing the Bible as a personal confession (within a wider social,  geographical, and historical confession), rather than “someone elses mail”, will assist us in doing biblical studies that can more directly speak to the church.
  • Sometimes those who advocate Theological Interpretation seem to be saying that we need to set aside the ‘historical critical’ questions biblical scholars have been taking to the text and replace these with theological questions. But in my humble opinion the many questions asked of the texts–whether concerned with sources, historicity, literary features, etc.–are all legitimate. Can we not ask questions concerning the theology of the texts as well as all these and more?
  • As someone who is entering into the realm of teaching within the context of a Bible college, and who has been interested in the form and function of theological education for some time, I often ponder the pros and cons of the division between Biblical studies and Theology. Does the departmental split need to stand? Or does this need rethinking? While we do not want to collapse one into the other, I think we need to reconfigure their relationship. How we should do so is of course the big question.
    • My thought experiment is to retain the distinction in departments but to not associate lecturers with either one. So while retaining OT, NT, and Theology departments, gone will be NT and OT professors, and professors of Theology. Room would still need to made for particular specializations within each field, but these would be all determinative for what one teaches, researchs, and publishes on. Possible? Im not sure…