Wednesday 18 February 2009

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 1

[This is the first 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

Francis Watson notes that theological interpretation has ‘an obvious bearing on the historical-critical paradigm’ (Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994], 3). Theological readings have arguably flourished in seeming inverse proportion to growing dissatisfaction with historical-critical approaches.

In part, this has to do more generally with the change in the intellectual climate from ‘modernism’ to ‘postmodernism’ and the concomitant movement from ‘behind the text’ issues to ‘in the text’ and ‘in front of the text’ issues.

In this respect, Leo G. Perdue, The Collapse of History: Reconstructing Old Testament Theology, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), and Reconstructing Old Testament Theology: After the Collapse of History, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005) has written of the departure from ‘history’ as the controlling factor in Old Testament interpretation, opening the way for other approaches associated with ideology, narrative, metaphor, imagination, liberation theology, feminism and womanism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism.

However, even before the recent renaissance of interest in theological interpretation, and for some years now, historical criticism has been challenged from many sides, and even declared ‘bankrupt’ by some, who point to its inability to deal with the real issues of people in their daily lives, and bring about transformation (notably Walter Wink, The Bible in Human Transformation: Toward a New Paradigm for Biblical Study [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973]).

Those disaffected with historical criticism argue that it has not proved itself capable of nurturing theological readings. Stephen Fowl, for instance, avers that historical criticism necessarily entails the exclusion of theological and ecclesial concerns, and he criticises Brevard S. Childs for seeking to understand the discrete voices of the Old and New Testaments via historical-critical methodology.

[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 165; Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 27. See also Lewis Ayres and Stephen E. Fowl, ‘(Mis)reading the Face of God: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church’, Theological Studies 60, 3 (1999), 513-28 for a criticism of the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s ‘The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church’, for insisting that the historical-critical method is essential for biblical interpretation.]

Angus Paddison sets his proposal of a theological reading of 1 Thessalonians in the context of a critique of historical criticism as operating with ‘a limited notion of meaning and truth’, as ‘disabled by a historicism that fixes the language into a restrictively reflective relationship between text and original context’, and which ‘distracts… from the actual subject matter of the Biblical texts’ (Theological Hermeneutics and 1 Thessalonians, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 133 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 17-66, citations from 37).

It is not that some historical critics do not have a high view of Scripture or read it for its significance for faith, for such has been a staple of much biblical interpretation. John Barton maintains that (perhaps until very recently) the vast majority of Old Testament scholars have not perceived the discipline of biblical criticism to be divorced from Christian belief.

[See his ‘Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective’, in Christopher Rowland and Christopher Tuckett (eds.), The Nature of New Testament Theology: Essays in Honour of Robert Morgan (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 18-30, explored more fully in his The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007).]

But to begin from a position of alleged neutrality is already to concede that Scripture can be read apart from a faith perspective. That supposed neutrality, it is argued, has now been exposed as an illusion, along with the recognition that historical criticism is not the monolith it has sometimes been thought to be.

[See, inter alia, Luke Timothy Johnson and William S. Kurz, The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A Constructive Conversation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), passim. Also from a Roman Catholic perspective is Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, 2nd edn. (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1999) who wrestles with the notion that Scripture is both the ‘Word of God’ (and thus ‘sacred’) and ‘historical’ (and thus dependent on the findings of historical criticism).]

It is important to recognise that Fowl, Watson and others do not so much want to undo the work of historical criticism as to resist it as the sole or even most important criterion for providing legitimacy to an interpretation.

Likewise, A.K.M. Adam: ‘I do not propose to throw out historical criticism altogether… I simply want to stress that the degree to which historical criticism is the source of legitimation for biblical theology is determined not by the dictates of modern reason’ (Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006], 34).

Hence, many of the critiques are arguably not directed to the historical-critical method as such, which many still employ to some extent, but to its underlying historical positivism.

Texts are products of humans working in history and cultures, and history and cultures leave their marks on the texts, which would suggest that study of such elements is essential.

[See Max Turner, ‘Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of the New Testament’, in Joel B. Green and Max Turner (eds.), Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 44-70 for an argument that historical-critical study of the Bible remains a vital component of theological interpretation.]

Not least because of the ‘Third Quest’, New Testament studies has seen a renewed interest in historical methods and associated disciplines, such as cultural anthropology.

[See Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 40-47, though we might note his caution that ‘a romantic epistemological optimism continues to underlie a surprising amount of even the best historical research’ (45).]

Even those favourable to historical criticism are seeking to reconceive it in the light of postmodern challenges.

[So John J. Collins, The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).]

Recent years have seen calls for a renewed historical criticism which is not historicist, which is open to the transcendent and, within the context of a specifically Christian approach to Scripture, respects the ‘otherness’ of the text, allowing the text to challenge the interpreter’s own worldview.

[E.g., F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp, ‘Rethinking Historical Criticism’, Biblical Interpretation 7, 3 (1999), 235-71; Joel B. Green, ‘Modernity, History, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible’, Scottish Journal of Theology 54, 3 (2001), 308-29, esp. 313-20; Karl Möller, ‘Renewing Historical Criticism’, in Craig Bartholomew, Colin Greene, Karl Möller (eds.), Renewing Biblical Interpretation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series Vol. 1 (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000), 145-71; Peter Stuhlmacher, Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Toward a Hermeneutics of Consent, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (London: SPCK, 1979).]

Contemporary literary and cultural theory has also been marked by a ‘historical turn’ in some quarters – with the so-called new historicism. More a sensibility than a methodology, it questions the view which sees literature as an autonomous realm of discourse, and shows how the production and interpretation of texts are intermingled with contexts and ideologies.

[See Gina Hens-Piazza, The New Historicism, Guides to Biblical Scholarship (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002).]

For further reflection on the relationship of history and historical study to theology and biblical interpretation, see Craig Bartholomew, C. Stephen Evans, Mary Healy, Murray Rae (eds.), ‘Behind’ the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series Vol. 4 (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003); Murray A. Rae, History and Hermeneutics (London: T&T Clark, 2005); Lawrence W. Wood, Theology as History and Hermeneutics: A Post-Critical Conversation with Contemporary Theology (Lexington: Emeth, 2005).

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