Saturday 13 December 2008

Introducing Theological Interpretation 3

[The third of three posts, the first here, and the second here, introducing theological interpretation, a subject that has occupied much of my attention for the last ten years or so.]

Contemporary interest in theological hermeneutics arguably has two distinct, though related, foci.

1. In the first place is the development of an account of hermeneutics itself in conjunction with Christian theology.

[Related to this focus is the treatment by some of the hermeneutical nature of all theology, the theological implications of the notion that all understanding takes place within horizons constituted by language and history – on which, see now Anthony C. Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).]

Among those concerned to offer a theological account of interpretation is Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), who characterises his work as ‘a theology of interpretation’ (9).

[Others here include: Alexander S. Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, SCM Core Text (London: SCM, 2007); Amos Yong, Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective, Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology & Biblical Studies (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002); Jens Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004).]

Contending that the current crisis in hermeneutics is theological, Vanhoozer seeks to expose the philosophical and theological presuppositions which underlie debates about interpretation, and appeals to the Trinity as underwriting the notion of meaningful communication.

‘It is because I start somewhere else, with a different set of concerns, that I must dialogue rather than debate with Derrida. Even a point by point rebuttal of deconstruction would still let deconstruction set the agenda… I wish instead to make a fresh start on the question of textual meaning, inspired by a Christian understanding of God, language, and transcendence… I propose that we take God’s trinitarian self-communication as the paradigm of what is involved in all true communication’ (Vanhoozer, Meaning, 199).

God is a communicative agent, whose speaking enacts a ‘covenant of discourse’: speaker (Father), Word (Son), and reception (Spirit).

[See also Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Leicester: Apollos, 2002), 159-203 (‘From Speech Acts to Scripture Acts: The Covenant of Discourse and the Discourse of the Covenant’).]

Vanhoozer’s exploration of ‘meaning’ takes in the communicative action of the triune God, the creation of human beings in his image, and language as God’s gift for communion in covenant relationship.

2. In the second is a discussion of how biblical interpretation shapes, and is shaped by, Christian theology.

In this case, where theological hermeneutics reflects on how theology shapes the way a biblical text is read, it is, in the words of Francis Watson, concerned with developing ‘a hermeneutic and a corresponding exegetical practice oriented towards theological questions’ (Francis Watson, Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994], 221). It is the kind of interdisciplinary work where ‘the concerns of… systematic theology actually shape the ways in which biblical studies is conducted’ (Joel B. Green, ‘Modernity, History, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible’, Scottish Journal of Theology 54, 3 [2001], 308-29, here 309).

It should be clear, then, that theological interpretation is interdisciplinary in its concern and focus. Along such lines, Christopher R. Seitz, Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) calls for ‘biblical studies to be more theological and theological studies to be more biblical’ (25). This interest is clear in Watson’s work, and Stephen Fowl too is concerned about disciplinary fragmentation in the academy.

[See Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 13-21, and ‘The Conceptual Structure of New Testament Theology’, in Scott J. Hafemann (ed.), Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect (Leicester: Apollos, 2002), 225-36, esp. 226-30. See also David F. Ford and Graham Stanton (eds.), Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom: Scripture and Theology (London: SCM, 2003) for a collection of essays from biblical scholars and theologians engaging with issues related to Scripture and theology.]

As Vanhoozer says:

The theological interpretation of the Bible is not the exclusive property of biblical studies but the joint responsibility of all the theological disciplines and of the whole people of God.’

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘Introduction: What is Theological Interpretation of the Bible?’, in Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.), Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (London: SPCK, 2005), 19-25, here 21 (italics original).

No comments: