Principles of Theological Interpretation (pt. 2)

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.

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