Monday, 23 November 2009

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 8

[This is the eighth of twelve posts outlining a number of streams in the current interest in theological interpretation, paying particular attention to recent treatments. For earlier introductions to theological interpretation, see here, here, and here.]

#1 – Its uneasy relationship with historical criticism

#2 – Its disputed overlap with biblical theology

#3 – Its natural affinity with precritical interpretation

#4 – Its noteworthy exemplar in Karl Barth

#5 – Its relative comfort with multiple interpretations

#6 – Its significant emphasis on the role of the community of faith

#7 – Its contested dependence on ‘general’ hermeneutics

#8. Its careful attention to the role of the canon and typology

Although there are important historical issues related to the formation of the canon, the hermeneutical concerns are here foregrounded. As Cummins notes:

‘On the overall question of the canon, there is a general recognition that trying to trace its emergence and delineate its contours can be an instructive (if inexact) enterprise, but that in the end this is a secondary endeavour. What is of the utmost importance is that the church has received as providentially provided a sufficiently stable and cohesive body of texts which in its final form constitutes the rule or norm of Christian faith, practice and worship.’

[S.A. Cummins, ‘The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recent Contributions by Stephen E. Fowl, Christopher R. Seitz and Francis Watson’, Currents in Biblical Research 2, 2 (2004), 179-96, at 187-88. In addition, see: J.G. McConville, ‘Biblical Theology: Canon and Plain Sense’, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 19, 2 (2001), 134-57; Robert W. Wall, ‘Canonical Context and Canonical Conversations’, in Joel B. Green and Max Turner (eds.), Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 165-82; David S. Yeago, ‘The Bible: The Spirit, the Church, and the Scriptures: Biblical Inspiration and Interpretation Revisited’, in James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (eds.), Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 49-93, at 70-85.]

Where historical-critical approaches have generally been able to set aside confessional issues, those interested in theological interpretation acknowledge and seek to study the ways in which Scripture functions as ‘canon’ in and for faith communities.

[For a polemical exploration of canon as an ecclesiastical straitjacket exercising imperialistic control and enforcing particular ideological views, see George Aichele, The Control of Biblical Meaning: Canon as Semiotic Mechanism (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001). Aichele’s thesis that the canon ‘prevents readers from freely reading the texts of the Bible’ (12) doesn’t sit well with theological readings. Once Scriptures are said to constitute a canon, the Bible becomes a single message, where the texts refer to themselves, commenting on each other, controlling their meaning, filtering out other meanings that might conflict with the larger whole. Loveday Alexander, ‘God’s Frozen Word: Canonicity and the Dilemmas of Biblical Studies Today’, Expository Times 117, 6 (2006), 237-42 notes that the concept of canon carries authoritarian dogmatic overtones, and biblical studies has lost the skill of inhabiting the canonical text in a liberating and creative manner. More positively, note the thesis of William J. Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), that ‘canon’ is not an epistemological criterion so much as an ecclesial means of grace. Scripture belongs to the realm of soteriology rather than epistemology, with the important entailment that readers of Scripture are to know God rather than know how to know God. Although it remains a moot point as to whether epistemology and soteriology should be played off against one another in this fashion, Abraham’s call to recover the use of Scripture for spiritual formation, as that which shapes the believing community, is consonant with the broader concerns here explored.]

Regularly associated with such approaches is a focus on the final form of the text recognised as canonical.

[See Christopher R. Seitz, ‘The Canonical Approach and Theological Interpretation’, in Craig Bartholomew, Scott Hahn, Robin Parry, Christopher Seitz, Al Wolters (eds.), Canon and Biblical Interpretation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series Vol. 7 (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2006), 58-110, esp. 65-68, 73-76, 84-89. See also his Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), where the final form of the book of the Twelve is taken seriously as a whole work, demonstrating its capacity to build a bridge ‘from the past to the future and, in so doing, to provide generous hermeneutical guidelines on how that prophetic word encloses our times as well’ (24).]

For Christian interpreters, the status and role of the Old Testament is particularly important.

[Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 34-41; Rolf P. Knierim, ‘On the Interpretation of the Old Testament by the Church’, Ex Auditu 16 (2000), 55-76.]

Moberly thus notes:

‘Whatever the importance of attending to the scriptures of Israel in their own right, it is fundamental for the Christian faith that the God of Israel is known as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our starting-point must in some way be the contextualization of Israel’s scriptures within Christian faith.’

[R. Walter L. Moberly, ‘The Canon of the Old Testament: Some Historical and Hermeneutical Reflections from a Western Perspective’, in Ivan Z. Dimitrov, James D.G. Dunn, Ulrich Luz, and Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr (eds.), Das Alte Testament als christliche Bible in orthodoxer und westlicher Sicht, Wissenschaftliche untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 239-57, here 254.]

Luke 24:13-35 is illuminating in this respect (cf. John 5:39, 46-47).

[See, e.g., Karl Paul Donfried, Who Owns the Bible? Toward the Recovery of a Christian Hermeneutic, Companions to the New Testament (New York: Crossroad, 2006), 21-31; Richard B. Hays, ‘Can the Gospels Teach us How to Read the Old Testament?’, Pro Ecclesia 11, 4 (2002), 402-18, esp. 415-18; R.W.L. Moberly, The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 45-70 (‘Christ as the Key to Scripture: The Journey to Emmaus’), revisited more recently in ‘Christ in All the Scriptures? The Challenge of Reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture’, Journal of Theological Interpretation 1, 1 (2007), 79-100; see also D. Brent Laytham, ‘Interpretation on the Way to Emmaus: Jesus Performs His Story’, Journal of Theological Interpretation 1, 1 (2007), 101-15.]

The travellers on the road to Emmaus are not rebuked for not believing Jesus, but for not believing the prophets (24:25); and Jesus does not offer them esoteric revelation, but exposition from the Scriptures (24:27). The story of Jesus ‘needs to be set in a context beyond itself… So, as Jesus cannot be understood apart from Jewish Scripture, Jewish Scripture cannot be understood apart from Jesus; what is needed is an interpretation which relates the two – and it is this that Jesus provides (Moberly, Bible, Theology, and Faith, 51). Israel’s Scriptures ‘provide a context and a content for making sense of Jesus’ (Moberly, ‘Christ in All the Scriptures?’, 80).

Perhaps most significant in Christian reflection on the canon of Scripture is the work of Brevard S. Childs.

[See the essays in Christopher Seitz and Kathryn Greene-McCreight (eds.), Theological Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Brevard S. Childs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), a diverse collection reflecting the breadth of Childs’ own engagement with Scripture.]

With the canonical approach associated with Childs comes a focus on the final form of the biblical texts, and a concern to take seriously the role of Scripture in the church and in Christian formation.

[For his interaction with recent English and German scholarship, see Brevard S. Childs, ‘The Canon in Recent Studies: Reflections on an Era’, Pro Ecclesia 14, 1 (2005), 26-45, reprinted in Bartholomew et al. (eds), Canon, 33-57. In ‘Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis’, Pro Ecclesia 6, 1 (1997), 16-26, he argues for a ‘multi-level approach to Scripture’, taking into account ‘the distinct contexts in which the text operates’ (22). See also his ‘Speech-Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation’, Scottish Journal of Theology 58, 4 (2005), 375-92, in which he argues, among other things, that Wolterstorff’s application of speech act theory does not deal adequately ‘with the function of the Christian canon which shaped the church’s traditions in such a way to provide a rule-of-faith for the theological guidance of subsequent generations of readers’ (375).]

Childs holds to the relatively independent but complementary witness of the Old and New testaments to the ‘divine reality’ of the text’s witness (articulated and worked out most fully in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible [London: SCM, 1992]). With more than a nod to Childs, Christopher Seitz seeks to reconnect the Testaments where they have become disconnected in Christian theology.

[Christopher R. Seitz, Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), passim. Charles J. Scalise also builds on Childs’ work: Hermeneutics as Theological Prolegomena: A Canonical Approach, Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics 8 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1994); From Scripture to Theology: A Canonical Journey into Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996). More recently, also following in Childs’ wake, Rolf Rendtorff, The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament, trans. David E. Orton, Tools for Biblical Study 7 (Leiden: Deo Publishing, 2005) focuses on the received form of the text, offers a ‘retelling’ of the Hebrew Bible (à la von Rad) before looking at its theological themes, arguing that Christians can and must interpret the Hebrew Bible on its own terms.]

It should be noted, however, that even scholars who agree on the need to take the canon into account disagree on whether the Old Testament is to be read on its own terms apart from interpreting it with reference to Christ.

[See especially Christoper R. Seitz, ‘Christological Interpretation of Texts and Trinitarian Claims to Truth: An Engagement with Francis Watson’s Text and Truth’, Scottish Journal of Theology 52, 2 (1999), 209-26, and Francis Watson, ‘The Old Testament as Christian Scripture: A Response to Professor Seitz’, Scottish Journal of Theology 52, 2 (1999), 227-32.]

This is connected with continued debates about how far christological approaches to the Old Testament should be subsumed under, or even give way, to ‘trinitarian’ approaches.

[Alan G. Padgett, ‘The Canonical Sense of Scripture: Trinitarian or Christocentric?’, Dialog 45, 1 (2006), 36-43; Brent A. Strawn, ‘And These Three Are One: A Trinitarian Critique of Christological Approaches to the Old Testament’, Perspectives in Religious Studies 31, 2 (2004), 191-210.]

Seitz follows Childs’ lead here, holding that Christian theologians should listen to the distinct voice of the Old Testament rather than begin with the New Testament and then wonder how ‘politely to work around’ the Old (‘Christological Interpretation’, 226). The church understands Jesus against the larger horizon of Old Testament expectation; the Old Testament does not simply provide background for the gospel; it is part of the fabric of the gospel itself. The Scriptures witness to God in Israel and in Christ, such that what holds the canon together is not a theological abstraction, but the God who made a covenant with Israel and who raised Jesus from the dead (Seitz, Word Without End, 8, and see 13-27, 251-62; Figured Out: Typology and Providence in Christian Scripture [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001], 131-44, 177-90).

Francis Watson remains unconvinced, fearing that Seitz does not give sufficient attention to the dialectic between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The identification of the God of Israel in the Old Testament as the God of Jesus Christ in the New Testament ‘will only be apparent if, without losing their distinctiveness, the Old and New Testaments are seen to be constituted as old and new only in relation to the other and to the definitive disclosure in Jesus of the triune God that both separates them and unites them. As there is no New Testament without the Old, so there is no Old Testament without the New’ (‘Old Testament’, 228).

Finally, in relation to canon, we should note briefly the increased interest in typology and figural interpretation.

[Stephen E. Fowl, ‘Theological and Ideological Strategies of Biblical Interpretation’, in Michael J. Gorman (ed.), Scripture: An Ecumenical Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005), 163-75, at 171-73; Stanley D. Walters (ed.), Go Figure! Figuration in Biblical Interpretation, Princeton Theological Monograph Series (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2008).]

Seitz notes that ‘the term figural entails a literary dimension’ in the way that materials are related to one another, with an undergirding ‘theological conviction… that God is acting consistently and comprehensibly across time’ (Prophecy and Hermeneutics, 8). Moreover, figural reading involves a commitment to a ‘distinctive understanding of time and providence, based upon the canonical coherence of Christian Scripture’ (Prophecy and Hermeneutics, 16, worked out more fully in various essays gathered together in Figured Out).

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