Sunday 8 March 2009

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 2

[This is the second 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

Related to the previous feature (its uneasy relationship with historical criticism) is the question of the relationship between theological interpretation and biblical theology.

[More generally on this topic, see Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 103-25, and (with a typology of different approaches to the issue) ‘Biblical Theology and/or Theological Interpretation of Scripture?’, Scottish Journal of Theology 61, 1 (2008), 16-31. See also Craig Bartholomew, Mary Healy, Karl Möller, Robin Parry (eds.), Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series Vol. 5 (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2004).]

Some (e.g., James K. Mead, Biblical Theology: Issues, Methods, and Themes [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007], 1-12, 97) see or assume an overlap between the two disciplines.

Others see them as antithetical to each other, particularly where biblical theology is a historical, ‘scientific’ endeavour, cut loose from church dogma, after the fashion of Gabler, Wrede, and Stendahl.

A.K.M. Adam, for instance, criticises the programme of biblical theology as carried out under modernity.

[A.K.M. Adam, Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 19-36, ‘Biblical Theology and the Problem of Modernity’, and see his Making Sense of New Testament Theology: “Modern” Problems and Prospects, Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics 11 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1995) in which he seeks to show that New Testament theology does not need to be built on warrants derived from historical criticism.]

The discipline, as established by the norms of modern culture and progress, denies the continuity between the biblical text of the past and the believing community of the present (Adam, Faithful Interpretation, 12, 28-29; cf. Angus Paddison, ‘Scriptural Reading and Revelation: A Contribution to Local Hermeneutics’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 8, 4 [2006], 433-48, at 445-46).

Biblical theology, according to Adam, has proceeded in the light of Stendahl’s distinction between ‘what it meant’ and ‘what it means’, but this ‘quite arbitrarily concentrates on discontinuity in interpretation, without even considering the fact that when a text has been interpreted every day for over nineteen centuries, there will be important continuity of interpretation’ (Adam, Faithful Interpretation, 28; cf. Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study, Studies in Theological Interpretation [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006], 87, who writes that biblical scholarship ‘tends to take for granted a sectarian ecclesiology, presupposing unbridgeable discontinuity between the church who first believed and the church who now believes’).

Likewise for Fowl, ‘theological interpretation’ is not ‘biblical theology’, since the latter is mired in historical-critical retrieval of meaning of the text rather than churchly reading.

[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. For similar sentiments, see Luke Timothy Johnson, ‘Imagining the World Scripture Imagines’, Modern Theology 14, 2 (1998), 165-80, at 170-71, 173, and R.R. Reno, ‘Biblical Theology and Theological Exegesis’, in Bartholomew et al. (eds.), Out of Egypt, 385-408.]

And for Joel Green too, ‘commitment to a linear methodology that prioritizes historical meaning has pushed the Humpty Dumpty of biblical theology off the wall, with no means in sight for putting the pieces back together again’ (Joel B. Green, ‘Scripture and Theology: Failed Experiments, Fresh Perspectives’, Interpretation 56, 1 [2002], 5-20, here 10). Though, elsewhere he insists that ‘if we are to engage in a genuinely theological exegesis of Christian Scripture, then both disciplines, biblical studies and systematic theology, must change’ (‘Practicing the Gospel in a Post-Critical World: The Promise of Theological Exegesis’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47/3 [2004], 387-97, at 387).

Current interest in theological hermeneutics has certainly influenced the discussion as to whether biblical theology should have a confessional character.

[Patrick D. Miller, ‘Theology from Below: The Theological Interpretation of Scripture’, in Michael Welker and Friedrich Schweitzer (eds.), Reconsidering the Boundaries Between Theological Disciplines, Theologie: Forschung und Wissenschaft 8 (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2005), 3-13; Henning Graf Reventlow, ‘Modern Approaches to Old Testament Theology’, in Leo G. Perdue (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 221-40, esp. 224-26.]

In this context, biblical theology has been reenvisioned in different ways (See Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation, 110-19). The reenvisioning has been seen in the calls of some evangelical scholars for biblical theology to be organised along salvation-historical lines, concerned with the self-disclosure of God through history, revealed in Scripture.

[So, e.g., Don Garlington, ‘The Biblical-Theological Method’, in Michael A.G. Haykin (ed.), Acorns to Oaks: The Primacy and Practice of Biblical Theology. A Festschrift for Dr. Geoff Adams (Dundas: Joshua Press, 2003), 25-42; Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics: Biblical-Theological Foundations and Principles (Leicester: Apollos, 2006); Elmer A. Martens, ‘Moving from Scripture to Doctrine’, Bulletin for Biblical Research 15:1 (2005), 77-103; Charles H.H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), who views biblical theology as ‘a bridge discipline, standing in an intermediate position between historical study of the Bible and the use of the Bible as authoritative Scripture by the church’ (8). Even so, it is not at all clear that Adam and Fowl (for instance) would consider Scobie’s work an example of ‘theological interpretation’: see Karl Möller, ‘The Nature and Genre of Biblical Theology: Some Reflections in the Light of Charles H.H. Scobie’s “Prolegomena to a Biblical Theology”’, in Bartholomew et al. (eds.), Out of Egypt, 41-64. In a review, Walter Moberly comments that ‘although Scobie constructively presents the content of Scripture under appropriate theological headings, there is no real theological interpretation of Scripture in the sense of providing interpretations that in some way embody the content of Scripture in the very way the text is read and appropriated’ (Journal of Theological Studies 55, 1 [2004], 158-62, here 162).]

Not too dissimilar, according to Francis Watson (Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997]), biblical theology should be redefined as theological reflection on the Christian Bible in its canonical unity, finding Christ at the centre of Scripture, the proper interpretation of which should be the primary concern of Christian theology.

Perhaps most significant is Brevard Childs’ canonical approach to biblical theology, focusing on the final form of the text as the basis for exegesis and theological reflection, and seeking ‘to understand the various voices within the whole Christian Bible, New and Old Testament alike, as a witness to the one Lord Jesus Christ, the selfsame divine reality’.

[Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (London: SCM, 1992), 85. Rolf Rendtorff also offers a ‘canonical’ approach to Old Testament theology: The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament, trans. David E. Orton, Tools for Biblical Study 7 (Leiden: Deo Publishing, 2005).]

Somewhat differently, mention might also be made here of Philip Esler who adopts a ‘socio-theological model’ of persons in communion.

[Philip F. Esler, New Testament Theology: Communion and Community (London: SPCK, 2005), and ‘New Testament Interpretation as Interpersonal Communion: The Case for a Socio-Theological Hermeneutics’, in Christopher Rowland and Christopher Tuckett (eds.), The Nature of New Testament Theology: Essays in Honour of Robert Morgan (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 51-74.]

Emphasising the historical particularity of the New Testament authors, the knowability of the past, and the importance of authorial intention, it is ‘a model of dialogue and communion’ in which we converse with our forebears in the faith, seeking ‘to understand the original meaning of the New Testament as composed by persons who, like us, belonged (or belong?) to the body of Christ and experienced the same Holy Spirit in spite of the cultural chasm between us and them’ (Esler, New Testament Theology, 37).

[See also Christine Helmer, ‘Biblical Theology: Reality and Interpretation Across Disciplines’, in Christine Helmer with Taylor G. Petrey (eds.), Biblical Interpretation: History, Context, and Reality, Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series 26 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 1-13, for whom the experiences of individuals and communities recorded in biblical texts have shaped centuries of lives, and these religious perspectives are adaptable to new historical contexts. ‘The power of texts rests precisely in their transhistorical potential to speak to subsequent readers about the reality articulated in them’ (6). Cf. her ‘Biblical Theology: Bridge Over Many Waters’, Currents in Biblical Research 3.2 (2005), 169-96.]

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