Archive for April 29th, 2009

Principles of Theological Interpretation (pt. 1)

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

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).

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.