Thursday 23 April 2009

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 3

[This is the third 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

Along with the waning of the hegemony of historical criticism and suggestions about the reconfiguration of biblical theology, dialogue with precritical interpreters has become something of a leitmotif of theological interpretation.

[A small sample of pertinent studies includes: Brian E. Daley, ‘Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable? Some Reflections on Early Christian Interpretation of the Psalms’, in Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (eds.), The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 69-88 (and see the other essays in this part of the volume); P.B. Decock, ‘On the Value of Pre-Modern Interpretation of Scripture for Contemporary Biblical Studies’, Neotestamentica 39, 1 (2005), 57-74; Donald Fairbairn, ‘Patristic Exegesis and Theology: The Cart and the Horse’, Westminster Theological Journal 69, 1 (2007), 1-19; Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram: How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the ‘Plain Sense’ of Genesis 1-3, Issues in Systematic Theology 5 (New York: Lang, 1999); John J. O’Keefe and R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); Daniel J. Treier, ‘The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis? Sic et Non’, Trinity Journal 24, 1 (2003), 77-103; Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 39-55; William C. Weinrich, ‘Patristic Exegesis as Ecclesial and Sacramental’, Concordia Theological Quarterly 64, 1 (2000), 39-60; Robert Louis Wilken, ‘Allegory and the Interpretation of the Old Testament’, Letter & Spirit 1 (2005), 11-21; Frances M. Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); ‘The “Mind” of Scripture: Theological Readings of the Bible in the Fathers’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 7, 2 (2005), 126-41.]

Although by no means monolithic in outlook or approach (cf. Treier, ‘Pre-Critical Exegesis’, 79), precritical interpreters offer unashamedly theological readings from which those seeking to develop postcritical modes of theological interpretation may learn. Hence, Brian Daley calls for ‘a more positive perception of early Christian exegesis… as not merely “pre-critical” but as thoroughly and – in many cases, at least – successfully theological’ (Daley, ‘Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable?’, 214, his italics). Frances Young captures it well when she says that the lesson of the Fathers is that biblical interpretation ought to embrace the concerns which tend to get separated into theology and praxis, scholarship and spirituality:

‘The purpose of biblical exegesis, implicit and explicit, was to form the practice and belief of Christian people, individually and collectively. Insofar as there was contention about belief or practice, the Bible was at the heart of the debate’ (Young, Biblical Exegesis, 299).

This movement is arguably part of a wider ‘recovery of ancient Christian practices’ (Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation, 39). It is seen, not least, in the publication of two commentary series exploring ancient traditions of biblical interpretation – ‘The Church’s Bible’, edited by Robert Louis Wilken, published by Eerdmans, and the ‘Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture’, edited by Thomas Oden, published by IVP.

Those favoured for consideration include Irenaeus, Augustine, Origen, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin.

[E.g., Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 96-99 (Aquinas); Brian Brock, Singing the Ethos of God: On the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 99-237 (Augustine and Luther); Jason Byassee, Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine, Radical Traditions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007); Brevard S. Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) (Irenaeus, Origen, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin); Stephen E. Fowl, ‘The Importance of a Multivoiced Literal Sense of Scripture: The Example of Thomas Aquinas’, in in A.K.M. Adam, Stephen E. Fowl, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Francis Watson, Reading Scripture with the Church: Toward a Hermeneutic for Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 35-50; Karlfried Froehlich, ‘“Take Up and Read”: Basics of Augustine’s Biblical Interpretation’, Interpretation 58, 1 (2004), 5-16; Luke Timothy Johnson and William S. Kurz, The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A Constructive Conversation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 35-118 (Origen and Augustine); William S. Kurz, Reading the Bible as God’s Own Story: A Catholic Approach for Bringing Scripture to Life (Ijamsville: The Word Among Us Press, 2007), 69-104 (Irenaeus and Athanasius); Matthew Levering, ‘Ecclesial Exegesis and Ecclesial Authority: Childs, Fowl, and Aquinas’, The Thomist 69, 3 (2005), 407-67, esp. 454-66 (Aquinas); Angus Paddison, Theological Hermeneutics and 1 Thessalonians, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 133 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 69-135 (Aquinas and Calvin); M.M. Pazdan, ‘Thomas Aquinas and Contemporary Biblical Interpreters: “I Call You Friends” (John 15:15), New Blackfriars 86, 1005 (2005), 465-77; R.R. Reno, ‘Origen and Spiritual Interpretation’, Pro Ecclesia 15, 1 (2006), 108-26, a version of which appears in Justin S. Holcomb (ed.), Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 21-38; Eugene F. Rogers, Jr., ‘How the Virtues of an Interpreter Presuppose and Perfect Hermeneutics: The Case of Thomas Aquinas’, Journal of Religion 76, 1 (1996), 64-81; John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 68-106 (Calvin); Jens Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 47-77 (Luther).]

One of the perceived beneficial features of drawing on precritical traditions is that interpreters saw a continuity between the biblical text and their own situations. To be sure, historical distance was an issue for the church fathers, but they offered theological guidance for bridging the gap. As Reno articulates it:

‘The most important and debilitating distance that separates us from what the Scriptures are saying should be understood spiritually. For all our worries about history, as well as those about the limitations of finite language and culturally conditioned texts, our difficulties in relation to the biblical text are not historical or metaphysical’ (R.R. Reno, ‘“You Who Were Once Far Off Have Been Brought Near”: Reflections in the Aid of Theological Exegesis’, Ex Auditu 16 [2000], 170-82, here 170-71).

The distance to be overcome was the distance between sin and righteousness, and guidance came from affiliation with the community of faith (Reno, ‘Theological Exegesis’, 172, and see 180: ‘Only as we are formed by the common life of the church, her ancient teachings, her ceaseless prayer, and her patterns of self-discipline and mutual service, can we read rightly’).

Furthermore, the Scriptures themselves do not treat the passage of time as ‘corrosive and corruptive’ (Reno, ‘Theological Exegesis’, 173). The rediscovery of the book of the law after centuries have passed, and the results its reading brings about (2 Kings 22:11-13) reminds us that ‘history does not necessarily or inevitably distance us from the word of God’ (Reno, ‘Theological Exegesis’, 174). ‘[T]he crucial issue is the distance at which we stand from that which is near’ (Reno, ‘Theological Exegesis’, 175). The distance, such as it was perceived, was bridged with figural reading (which ‘allows the reader to bridge the very real and enduring distances of time through interpretive coordination’), and ‘intensive reading’ (which ‘focuses on the semantic plenitude of particular scriptural signs or episodes’) (Reno, ‘Theological Exegesis’, 175-79). Thus, for Origen, the ‘decisive background assumption that underwrites his bold exegetical moves is a belief in the divine economy as the overarching, structuring principle of scripture (and of all reality)’ (Reno, ‘Origen’, 125).

[See also Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation, 45-51 on allegorical and typological reading as interpretive strategies.]

It is for such reasons that David C. Steinmetz wrote of the superiority of pre-critical exegesis, making the point that – unlike the historical-critical method – the theory of levels of meaning was able to generate a plurality of meanings.

[David C. Steinmetz, ‘The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis’, Theology Today 37, 1 (1980), 27-38, reprinted in Stephen E. Fowl (ed.), The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Blackwell Readings in Modern Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 26-38.]

Here is a recognition that the ‘plain sense’ may encompass the ‘figural’ as well as the ‘literal’ (e.g., Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram, 22, and Fowl, ‘Importance of a Multivoiced Literal Sense’). Appeal may be made to Henri de Lubac’s study showing how medieval exegesis recognised richness of meaning whilst still not advocating arbitrariness.

[Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, trans. E.M. Macierowski, 2 vols., Ressourcement: Retrieval and Renewal in Catholic Thought (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998 and 2000). On which, see Marcellino D’Ambrosio, ‘The Spiritual Sense in De Lubac’s Hermeneutics of Tradition’, Letter & Spirit 1 (2005), 147-57; Kevin L. Hughes, ‘The “Fourfold Sense”: De Lubac, Blondel and Contemporary Theology’, Heythrop Journal 42, 4 (2001), 451-62; Susan K. Wood, Spiritual Exegesis and the Church in the Theology of Henri de Lubac (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998).]

Hence, precritical interpreters did not hold Scripture could say whatever they wanted it to.

‘The quadriga teaches four sets of criteria with which to evaluate representations of biblical texts; the fourfold approach to allegorical interpretation was not a license to permit imaginations to run wild but a set of channels to guide interpretive imaginations.’

[A.K.M. Adam, ‘This is Not a Bible: Dispelling the Mystique of Words for the Future of Biblical Interpretation’, in Robert M. Fowler, Edith Blumhofer, Fernando F. Segovia (eds.), New Paradigms for Bible Study: The Bible in the Third Millennium (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 3-20, here 17. See also his ‘Poaching on Zion: Biblical Theology as Signifying Practice’, in Adam et al., Reading Scripture, 17-34, esp. 25-28.]

Interpretation was thus not a ‘free for all’, without limits. One such important check is that Scripture was read according to the church’s Rule of Faith.

[For representative treatments of the ‘Rule of Faith’, see, e.g., Paul M. Blowers, ‘The Regula Fidei and the Narrative Character of Early Christian Faith’, Pro Ecclesia 6, 2 (1997), 199-228; Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 7-8; ‘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 169-71; Prosper S. Grech, ‘The Regula Fidei as a Hermeneutical Principle in Patristic Exegesis’, in Joze Krašovec (ed.), The Interpretation of the Bible: The International Symposium in Slovenia, JSOTS 289 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 589-601; Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 80-85; Paul Hartog, ‘The “Rule of Faith” and Patristic Biblical Exegesis’, Trinity Journal 28, 1 (2007), 65-86; Robert W. Jenson, ‘Hermeneutics and the Life of the Church’, in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds.), Reclaiming the Bible for the Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 89-105; Bryan M. Litfin, ‘The Rule of Faith in Augustine’, Pro Ecclesia 14, 1 (2005), 85-101; Daniel J. Treier, Virtue and the Voice of God: Toward Theology as Wisdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 113-25; Introducing Theological Interpretation, 57-77; Robert W. Wall, ‘Reading the Bible from Within Our Traditions: The “Rule of Faith” in Theological Hermeneutics’, in Joel B. Green and Max Turner (eds.), Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 88-107.]

A summary of key beliefs, configured around the triune God, shaped by the biblical narrative, the Rule of faith might be seen as an interpretive lens through which to read Scripture, which was christocentric and communal (Hartog, ‘The “Rule of Faith”’, 74-76, 78-79).

‘The rule of faith is the plot of the Bible that cannot therefore be read according to some other plot without disintegrating the Bible itself... [I]t is a summary of what the Church has learned hitherto when it has gone to the Bible to hear the Word of God. It is in this way appropriate that the rule of faith should light our way when we go back to the Bible again’ (Murray A. Rae, History and Hermeneutics [London: T&T Clark, 2005], 146).

Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s study of the notion of sensus literalis as deployed by Augustine, Calvin, and Barth suggests that although it operates with the constraint of the verbal sense of the text, it is by no means restricted to that, but also functions as a ‘ruled reading’ with a balance between a grammatical interpretation and the structure of communal practice or a rule of faith (Greene-McCreight, Ad Litteram). This sensibility is related to the broader interest in the mutually informing relationship between Scripture and doctrine.

[Cf. Joel B. Green, ‘Scripture and Theology: Failed Experiments, Fresh Perspectives’, Interpretation 56, 1 (2002), 5-20, at 15-17; Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation, 34: ‘Christian interpreters must discern not only how to read Scripture from a trinitarian perspective but also how other doctrines and broader theological interests might contribute to understanding the text.]

It has also provided an impetus to offer studies of doctrine from the perspective of the Rule of Faith.

[E.g., Ephraim Radner and George Sumner (eds.), The Rule of Faith: Scripture, Canon, and Creed in a Critical Age (Harrisburg: Morehouse,1998); Christopher R. Seitz (ed.), Nicene Christianity: The Future for a New Ecumenism (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001).]

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