Thursday 7 January 2010

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 9

[This is the ninth 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

#9. Its renewed reflection on the doctrine of Scripture

Discussions of theological interpretation have an obvious impact on reflections about the nature and purpose of Scripture itself. It might be anticipated that renewed reflection on Scripture, in turn, will yield fruits for its interpretation.

[See, e.g., Timothy Ward, Word and Supplement: Speech Acts, Biblical Texts, and the Sufficiency of Scripture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Telford Work, Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation, Sacra Doctrina: Christian Theology for a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); 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. See also Richard S. Briggs, ‘Perspectives on Scripture: Its Status and Purpose’, Heythrop Journal 48, 2 (2007), 267-74.]

If there is a trend discernible here, it is away from seeing the doctrine of Scripture as merely part of prolegomena, a distinct topic in its own right requiring consideration before dealing with other areas of doctrine. Rather, the doctrine of Scripture requires constant revisitation in the light of every other locus of theology – Trinity, soteriology, ecclesiology. Thus, as Work (Living and Active, 10) says:

‘In theological language, the three claims are that the Bible’s character as the Word of God suggests a Trinitarian ontology of Scripture; that the Bible’s role in salvation suggests a historical and personal soteriology of Scripture; and that the Bible’s inextricable relationship with the Church in its eschatological setting suggests an ecclesiology of Scripture.’

In short, Scripture must not be treated apart from the God who speaks through it, from the Spirit who inspired and illumines it, from the Christ to whom it witnesses, from its role in God’s work of salvation, and from its place in the formation of the church. Hence, for instance, Scripture can be seen as that which not only documents God’s covenant with his people, but which is itself a covenant document, containing commands and promises, the ratification of God’s relationship to his people. God does not merely provide abstract propositions in Scripture, but through Scripture binds himself to his people in a promise to act on their behalf. Scripture is God’s covenant deed in the sense that it functions as his promise of salvation, and as the written document which seals his promise.

[This notion goes back at least to Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 2nd edn. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), but has been reinvigorated, especially through speech act theory, in more recent treatments: David Gibson, ‘The God of Promise: Christian Scripture as Covenantal Revelation’, Themelios 29.3 (2004), 27-36; Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002); Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 133-41. Cf. Webster, Holy Scripture, 55: ‘Scripture’s authority flows from its given place in the economy of grace.’]

In a recent comparative study of Barr, Ricoeur and Frei, Richard Topping explores the nature of Scripture within God’s communicative and salvific action, seeking to show how Scripture is itself implicated in God’s revelatory action.

[Richard R. Topping, Revelation, Scripture and Church: Theological Hermeneutic Thought of James Barr, Paul Ricoeur and Hans Frei, Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).]

Such studies recognise that distinctions between ‘propositional’ and ‘personal’ revelation, or ‘word’ and ‘act’, need to be more nuanced than they have been in previous discussion, recognising that God speaks, but does things in speaking, whether commanding, promising, blessing, forgiving, exhorting, and so on; and God performs these acts through Scripture. As Treier writes:

‘[T]heological hermeneutics involves thinking about the nature and nurture of interpretation in the light of God, whose action puts reader, text, and author in a larger context that decisively alters the character of their interaction.’

[Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 135-36. For a full argument for paying attention to the role of divine agency in biblical hermeneutics, see Mark Alan Bowald, Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007). On Scripture as divine action, see Stephen R. Holmes, ‘Christology, Scripture, Divine Action and Hermeneutics’, in Andrew T. Lincoln and Angus Paddison (eds.), Christology and Scripture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Library of New Testament Studies 348 (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 156-70; cf. in the same volume the essay by John Webster, ‘Resurrection and Scripture’ (138-55).]

As might be expected, among other issues, there is debate as to whether Scripture’s authority does not subsist apart from a community of readers who treat it as such, or whether it remains a property of the text by virtue of the voice of God. John Webster, for one, is clear that Scripture is the product of the divine word, and the church does not confer authority on it.

[See Holy Scripture, 42-67, and Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), 9-46 (‘The Dogmatic Location of the Canon’). It should be acknowledged that some think Webster needs to accord more weight to tradition; see, e.g., Gavin D’Costa, ‘Revelation, Scripture and Tradition: Some Comments on John Webster’s Conception of “Holy Scripture”’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 6, 4 (2004), 337-50.]

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