If this subject is of interest to any of you (as I hope it is to all), take a look at Michael Westmoreland-White’s blog, Levellers, from earlier this month.
Archive for April, 2009
Theological interpretation of Scripture is biblical interpretation grounded in certain fundamental theological and hermeneutical (interpretive) principles. For many lay and ordained readers of the Bible as Scripture, most of these principles may not seem particularly revolutionary and may already be operative, either explicitly or tacitly, in their own interpretation. Nevertheless, they represent a growing consensus among some biblical scholars and theologians about how Scripture has not been read but should be read even by scholars. The coming together of ordinary people and scholars in the reading of Scripture theologically may be one of the fruits of the renewed interest in theological interpretation in the academy.
Beginning with the two noted briefly in yesterday’s post, we may identify, over the next few days, eight principles, all of which are closely connected to one another. (For independent but similar principles, see Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003], 1–5. and Richard B. Hays, “Reading the Bible with Eyes of Faith: The Practice of Theological Exegesis,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 1/1 [Spring 2007], 5-22.)
1. The Chalcedonian (or Incarnational) Principle
This first principle, as an aspect of the conviction that God engages in self-revelation (or else humans could not know God), has to do with the nature of Scripture as simultaneously fully divine and fully human. It is divine address in human dress. This view of the nature of Scripture is analogous to the theological doctrine of the incarnation, the Christian belief that the eternal second person of the Trinity became human in Jesus of Nazareth, and that he was therefore both fully divine and fully human. Since this theological doctrine was articulated at the Council of Chalcedon (in what is now northern Turkey) in 451, its hermeneutical corollary can be called the Chalcedonian principle.
This principle affirms that Scripture is first of all part of God’s self-revelation. The Christian tradition has consistently affirmed, in the words of the late Yale biblical scholar Brevard Childs, that the Bible is “God’s means of telling God’s story” (The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], 296). As such, Scripture is a divine word, or address, to us and an invitation (indeed a summons) to join the divine story, the divine drama.
This principle does not, however, ignore the human dimension of Scripture. Rather, it both permits and requires us to read Scripture as a collection of human writings, with all their historical and literary dimensions, and thus to develop and use appropriate methods of diachronic and synchronic exegesis. At the same time, the theological interpreter, sensitive to the Scriptures as a vehicle of divine address, seeks to hear the voice of God through the human voices; the theological interpreter also remains open to a surplus of meaning that does not limit the significance of texts to the results of diachronic and synchronic study.
This principle, then, both permits and requires us to read Scripture as simultaneously the Word of God and the words of humans. (Note: not everyone who practices theological interpretation uses this Chacedonian model for describing Scripture, but all acknowledge Scripture as both human words and divine address—the living and active word of God.)
2. The Catholic (or Universal) Principle
The second principle is that of the unity and universality, or catholicity, of the church and therefore also the catholicity of Scripture. This principle means that although the Scriptures were not written to us, they were written for us. Paul himself articulates such a principle explicitly (see 1 Corinthians 10:11 and Romans 15:4), and the rest of the biblical writers, who constantly reuse and reinterpret earlier texts and traditions, seem to share that perspective. The principle of catholicity means that all Scripture is written for all God’s people in all ages and places. (This conviction is not meant to minimize the difficulties present in Scripture or to side-step the need for responsible interpretation.)
From a theological perspective, Scripture transcends the very contingencies of time and space—as important and helpful for interpretation as they are—that are discovered about the text by historical-critical and social-scientific approaches to it. As Joel Green writes (Seized by Truth, 18):
- The first question, then, [in the interpretation of the Bible as Scripture] is not what separates us (language, diet, worldview, politics, social graces, and so forth) from the biblical authors, but whether we are ready to embrace the God to whom and the theological vision to which these writers bear witness.
He adds (Seized by Truth, 51):
- Historical judgments about the audience of a biblical text stand in tension with the theological affirmation of the oneness of the church that receives this biblical text as Scripture. Historical criticism assumes what Christians can never assume—namely, that there is more than one people of God.
This principle both permits and requires the theological interpreter to listen, not only to the scriptural text itself, but also—as much as possible—to the readings of Scripture articulated and performed by God’s people in other times, places, and cultures.
Even as interest in theological interpretation of the Bible grows, some people are still wondering what it is. So I have decided to post excerpts from my discussion of the topic in the revised and expanded edition of Elements of Biblical Exegesis (Hendrickson, 2009).
DEFINING THEOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION AND ITS GOALS
The chief editor of the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, systematic theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, says that theological interpretation is “reading to know God,” the God revealed in Israel and Jesus (p. 24). Its goal is to overcome the modern gap between exegesis and theology and to express the “joint responsibility of all theological disciplines” to interpret Scripture “with a governing interest in God” and a “broad ecclesial concern.” Vanhoozer insists, however, that theological interpretation is not the imposition of a confessional system (e.g., Catholicism or Calvinism) onto the biblical text, and he opposes what he perceives to be the postmodern tendency to turn exegesis into ideology (pp. 19-21).
In Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture, Joel Green contends that the most important difference between reading the Bible and reading the Bible as Scripture (theological interpretation) is that in the latter case we read the Bible as a word addressed to us; it assumes that we are part of the same community—God’s people throughout space and time—to which the biblical text was originally addressed. In other words, when we read a biblical text we are not reading someone else’s mail but our mail. And that “mail” is not merely part of a book or collection of books—“Bible”—but part of the sacred authoritative text for God’s people—“Scripture.”
Theological exegesis, therefore, is biblical interpretation that takes place in an ecclesial context (broadly understood to include academic and other contexts associated with the church) and is grounded in certain fundamental theological principles, especially (1) the principle of divine self-revelation and address and (2) the principle of the unity and catholicity, or universality, of the church. (We will have more to say about these, and other principles, in future posts.) Together, these two basic principles encourage the theological interpreter of Scripture to develop (or learn) and use appropriate methods of diachronic and synchronic analysis of texts, while also mandating a spiritual sensitivity to the texts.
The great saint Augustine (354–430) famously stated the purpose of scriptural interpretation in the following poignant words:
• “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all.” (On Christian Doctrine 1.35.40)
Stephen Fowl, another leading voice in theological interpretation of Scripture, echoes Augustine in saying that the goal of theological interpretation is ever-increasing communion with God and with one another (Engaging Scripture, vii, 3, 7, and throughout).
Another way of describing theological exegesis is to reflect on the kinds of questions the reader seeks to answer. In summary form, we may describe those questions as the following:
• What does the text urge us to believe? (faith)
• What does the text urge us to hope for? (hope)
• What does the text urge us to do? (love)
These questions are rooted in the medieval church’s fourfold exegetical method that considered first of all the literal meaning of a text, and then also its doctrinal, eschatological, and moral dimensions.
In asking these sorts of questions, however, we are acknowledging that the goal of theological interpretation is not merely, or even primarily, to read and question the text, but to allow the text to read, question, and form us. Christian theological interpretation is interpretation in, with, and for the church so that the church may in fact be the kind of church in the world that is appropriate to the Christian gospel.
One of my post-master’s students at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology, a pastor in the churches of Christ and a graduate of Lincoln Seminary in Illinois, has referred me to his former professor’s blog. Professor Robert Lowery’s posts include notes on the first of his planned three-volume treatment of Revelation, called Revelation’s Rhapsody: Listening to the Lyrics of the Lamb (How to Read the Book of Revelation). They also include a great post commemorating the centenary anniversary of the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible, which he rightly calls responsible for “a century of damage.” He concludes his post on the Scofield Bible as follows:
- “There is little doubt that without the Scofield Reference Bible the theological and eschatological landscape of the United States would look quite different today. Indeed, it would look better, I believe.”
The annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, to be held this November in New Orleans, should be interesting for lots of reasons. My own specific interests are well represented, and I will be involved in and/or attending a number of these.
I am happy that the new 2 Corinthians group has invited papers on the topic of theosis, among others. (Among those presenting on 2 Cor will be my student here at Duke, David Litwa, who has a very fine article on theosis and 2 Cor 3:18 in the fall 2008 issue of Journal of Theological Interpretation.) My major paper at SBL will also be on theosis, but in the Theological Interpretation of Christian Scripture group, and specifically in its session on Romans. The other two presenters are Richard Hays and Beverly Gaventa.
Here’s the abstract for my paper:
Romans: The First Christian Treatise on Theosis
In a recent book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, I have argued that Paul’s notion of cruciformity is really theoformity or, as the Christian tradition (especially in the East) has called it, deification, divinization, or theosis: becoming like God. That is, union with Christ in his death and resurrection is participation in the very life of God, effecting transformation by the Spirit into Christ the image of God; the result, Spirit-empowered Christlikeness, is actually Godlikeness.
This paper explores this overall interpretation of Paul by examining the presence of the theosis motif in Romans, beginning with 8:29. It argues that a central subject of Romans is in fact theosis, understood as present and future restoration of the image and glory of God through incorporation into, and conformity to, the Son of God. The prominence of this motif in Romans reveals that this letter, even in its pastoral and political particularity, is simultaneously the first extended Christian treatment of theosis. Because theosis is sometimes misunderstood as a private spiritual experience, this paper will demonstrate the communal and cruciform character of theosis as its practical implications are developed by Paul in chapters 9-11 and then 12-15, implications with ongoing significance for theological interpreters.
On the subject of Revelation and empire, which came up in a comment on yesterday’s post, let me mention that the January 2009 issue of the journal Interpretation is entitled “Revelation as a Critique of Empire.” It includes articles by Craig Koester (excellent), David Barr (another excellent piece), Warren Carter, and Allen Dwight Callahan, plus some related homiletical reflections. The pieces overlap a bit and sometimes are provocative without being concrete (especially Carter and Callahan), but this is a good starting place. (A short trial online subscription is available–then get it!) (Full disclosure: I am on the editorial board of Interpretation and helped plan this issue.)
I guess I lied; I’m back posting on Revelation. Having just finished a course on the book, I have a few recommendations for commentary reading:
1. For excellent historical and literary analysis mixed with equally excellent theological reflection, the winner by far is Mitchell Reddish’s commentary in the Smyth and Helwys series. Reddish is especially good at showing parallels in biblical and other ancient texts. A real bonus (and for me, a necessity in the study of Revelation) is his collection of sidebars and graphics (including art images) that highlight both historical and contemporary approaches to the interpretation of Revelation. A goldmine; I told Reddish it was a near-perfect commentary.
2. Also quite excellent–though more concise and without the graphics–is the new commentary by Ian Boxall in the Black’s series. Boxall has previously written on Revelation, and the commentary continues his very good work in combining historical, literary, and theological analysis. Very highly recommended.
3. David Aune’s three-volume, ultra-detailed, historical-critical commentary in the Word series (volume one here) has proven to be a very worthwhile read this term, though it takes patience to work through all the detail without much theological payoff.
4. Eugene Peterson’s theopoetic interpretation, Reversed Thunder, has been worth reading again (for about the tenth time) because he really allows Revelation to do what it’s intended to do: provoke the imagination and inspire worship.
5. Ben Witherington’s commentary in the New Cambridge series has some of the strengths of Reddish’s work but without the graphics and with less material on reception history. At times this commentary is hard to read because it does not deal with everything in the text sequentially, but his treatment of the social context (imperial cult, etc.) is very strong.
6. There are lots of other good commentaries (not to mention more general introductions), but these are currently my favorite. Finally, however, I note the commentary by Tim LaHaye, Revelation Unveiled, the commentary version of the “Left Behind” series. It’s worth reading just for that reason.
7. One last resource to mention: a very helpful set of tables on dozens of facets of Revelation can be found in Mark Wilson’s Charts on the Book of Revelation.
What volumes would you add to my list?
At a unique day-long conference in February that was co-sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Birmingham (AL) and (Baptist) Samford University’s Center for Pastoral Excellence, I gave one of my several talks that day on Paul and the spirituality of the cross. I specifically spoke about the cross as not only the source but also the shape of our salvation.
In the Q&A someone asked for suggestions on concrete ways to remember and practice that point. I noted that although it can be trivialized and abused, making the sign of the cross–slowly and reverently–is certainly one way some Christians do that. At that point, I raised the question, “What would happen if all of us Protestants joined Catholics, the Orthodox, and some fellow Protestants (Lutherans, Episcopalians [to the extent they are Protestants]) in making the sign of the cross?”
Two things happened very quickly. First, since it was time for lunch, the Baptist director of the Center invited us all to make the sign of the cross as he led us in grace before the meal! Second, the reporter from the Birmingham newspaper cornered me at the end of the day (looking for an angle other than “nice ecumenical event for the year of St. Paul”) to get me to elaborate a bit. He then made this one point I raised the focus of his article–which caused a bit of a stir in Birmingham, if the paper’s blog is any indication. (Typical post: “show me where it’s in the Bible, and I’ll do it” [like sitting on pew cushions, having altar calls, holding vacation Bible school, and celebrating Christmas in December, I suppose].) Part of the article is here for free access:
(The full text is here:
other sites may also have copied it in full.)
So now I raise this question for a wider audience. As I said to the reporter, “It’s time for us Protestants to get over our anti-Catholic bias and return to the ancient practice to focus better on the source and shape of our salvation” (or something like that).
What do you think? Do you agree? If not, why not? If so, how do we go about implementing it?
This will likely be my last post for a while on Revelation, but it is an important one, from my perspective. If we read Revelation as a theopoetic and theopolitical writing focused on the reign of God and of the slaughtered Lamb, rather than as a script about the end of history (see previous posts), what kind of spirituality emerges from that reading? I suggest the following:
3. Faithfulness and Prophetic Resistance
4. Discernment and Vision
5. Courageous Nonviolent Warfare
6. Embodied Communal Witness and Mission
A spirituality of worship. Revelation summons us to worship God the creator and redeemer, the Alpha and Omega, who reigns! It summons us to worship Jesus the redeemer, the slaughtered Lamb, the Alpha and Omega, who is Lord! The reign of God is not merely future or past but present. The summons to worship is therefore inseparable from allegiance. God in Christ both demands all and offers all
A spirituality of realism. Revelation summons us to live cognizant of the realities of evil and empire. Evil is real. Empire is now—not merely future or past but present. Empire, by nature, makes seductive blasphemous and immoral claims and engages in corollary practices that bring disorder to both vertical (people-God) and horizontal (people-people) human relations, promising life but delivering death—both physical and spiritual.
A spirituality of faithfulness and prophetic resistance. The Christian church is easily seduced by Empire’s idolatry and immorality because these claims and practices are often invested with religious meaning and authority. In the context of “civil religion,” the church is called to “come out.” In the midst of Empire, the church is called to resistance in word and deed as the inevitable corollary of faithfulness to God, a call that requires prophetic spiritual discernment provided by God’s Spirit, and a vocation that may result in various kinds of suffering.
A spirituality of discernment and vision. The spiritual discernment required of the church, in turn, requires an alternative vision of God and of reality that unveils and challenges Empire, a vision in need of the Spirit’s wisdom to see and apply. This takes us back to the need for worship.
A spirituality of courageous nonviolent warfare. The resistance required of Christians can be likened to warfare in search of victory. But because this victory is only the victory of the victorious slaughtered lamb, Christian resistance to Empire conforms to the pattern of Jesus Christ and of his apostles and saints: faithful, true, courageous, just, and nonviolent.
A spirituality of embodied communal witness and mission. Christian resistance, like warfare, is not passive but active. It consists of the formation of communities and individuals who pledge allegiance to God alone; live in nonviolent love toward friends and enemies alike; leave vengeance to God but bear witness to God’s coming judgment and salvation; create, by God’s Spirit, mini-cultures of life as alternatives to Empire’s culture of death; and invite all who desire life with God to repent and worship God and the Lamb. The will of God is for all to follow the Lamb and participate in the present and coming life of God-with-us forever.
A spirituality of hope. God the creator and Christ the redeemer take evil and injustice seriously and are about both to judge humanity and to renew the cosmos. We hope and long for the healing of the nations
The last word would simply be Follow. Follow the Lamb. Follow him out of empire but also, paradoxically, into empire: into the dark corners of empire, into those places where the vision of God and the Lamb is most needed, where death needs to be replaced with life, where we can bear witness in word and life to the coming new creation, where there will be life-giving water for all, healing for the nations, a new heavens and new earth liberated from the effects of our sin, and the perpetual presence of the living God, in whom we can be both lost and found in eternal wonder, awe, and praise. Giving flesh to such a vision is no small challenge.
Perhaps it would not be too bold to suggest that if we are to be a faithful church in the 21st century, the book of Revelation, and especially its vision of the slaughtered, victorious, and coming Lamb, needs to become more central to our worship, our spirituality, our practices. Perhaps, in a profound way, the last book of the Bible needs to become the church’s first book.
My previous post was critical of the “Left Behind” series–certainly not new news, but worth repeating, I think. But after deconstruction there must be reconstruction. So here is what I would offer as an alternative set of principles–a cruciform hermeneutic–for reading Revelation.
- Recognize that the central and centering image of Revelation is the lamb that was slaughtered. In Revelation, Christ dies for our sins, but he dies also, even primarily, as the incarnation and paradigm of faithfulness to God in the face of anti-God powers. Christ is lord, Christ is victorious, Christ conquers by cruciform faithful resistance: not by inflicting but by absorbing violence; by speaking his powerful word, not by actually killing. Revelation is counter-imperial, challenging Rome’s theology of Victory and Power with what many have called “Lamb power” (among others, Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation,103-22, three great chapters). We are victorious by following the Lamb, not Babylon/Rome/analogous imperial powers.
Remember that Revelation was first of all written by a first-century Christian for first-century Christians using first-century literary devices and images. These images reflect certain first-century realities; they do not predict 21st-century realities. However, like other powerful images, these images in Revelation naturally evoke connections to similar realities at other times, including our own—which leads to the next principle.
Abandon so-called literal, linear approaches to the book as if it were history written in advance, and use an interpretive strategy of analogy rather than correlation. Revelation is image, metaphor, poetry (Eugene Peterson: “a theological poem”), political cartooning. Revelation imaginatively reveals the nature of any and all systems that oppose the ways of God in the world, especially as revealed in Christ the lamb who was slaughtered. Those systems are not limited to particular future powers but are found in all places and times. We should therefore be examining our ideologies and -isms for manifestations of idolatry and immorality as expressed in imperialism, militarism, and nationalism (the worship of the state and its power), racism and classism (the worship of the corporate self and the degradation of the corporate other), consumerism and hedonism (the worship of things and pleasure). This means we must especially look at our own Western and American and even Christian systems and values, not at some future one-world government, for evidences of that which is antichrist.
Focus on the book’s call to discipleship. Revelation calls Christians to a difficult discipleship of discernment—a nonconformist cruciform faithfulness—that may lead to marginalization or even persecution now, but which leads ultimately to a place in God’s new heaven and new earth. Revelation calls believers to nonretaliation and nonviolence and not to a literal war of any sort, present or future. By its very nature as resistance, faithful nonconformity is not absolute withdrawal but rather critical engagement on very different terms from those of the status quo.
Place the images of death and destruction in Revelation within the larger framework of hope. The death and destruction in Revelation are symbolic of the judgment and cleansing of God that is necessary for the realization of the hope offered in Christ for a new heaven and new earth in which God and the Lamb alone reign forever among a redeemed, reconciled humanity from all tribes, peoples, and nations. The church bears witness in word and deed to this future reality, but it knows that only God can bring that final, future reality to earth, so it constantly prays, “Come, Lord Jesus.”