Wednesday 26 August 2009

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 6

[This is the sixth 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

One of the features of theological interpretation is that interpretation of Scripture is most appropriately carried out by, and in the context of, the church.

[S.A. Cummins, ‘The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recent Contributions by Stephen E. Fowl, Christopher R. Seitz and Francis Watson’, Currents in Biblical Research 2, 2 (2004), 179-96, esp. 191-93; Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 66-79, 85-88; Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 79-100; Charles M. Wood, The Formation of Christian Understanding: Theological Hermeneutics, 2nd edn. (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993), 20-29; 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. In addition, see (drawing on Paul Ricoeur) Lewis S. Mudge, Rethinking the Beloved Community: Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, Social Theory (Lanham: University Press of America, 2001), esp. 143-87, and Simone Sinn, The Church as Participatory Community: On the Interrelationship of Hermeneutics, Ecclesiology and Ethics, Studies in Ecumenism, Reconciliation and Peace (Dublin: Columba, 2002).]

This is a particularly prominent feature in the work of Stephen Fowl, for whom what counts as a reading of Scripture has to be ‘communal judgments about whether such interpretations will issue forth in faithful life and worship that both retain Christians’ continuity with the faith and practice of previous generations and extend that faith into the very specific contexts in which contemporary Christians find themselves’ (Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, Challenges in Contemporary Theology [Oxford: Blackwell, 1998], 26).

[Cf. Stephen E. Fowl, ‘Introduction’, in Stephen E. Fowl (ed.), The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Blackwell Readings in Modern Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), xii-xxx, at xix: ‘By defining a theological interpretation of Scripture as a reading aimed at shaping and being shaped by a community’s faith and practice, I have at the same time indicated a location where such reading will be most at home. That is, theological interpretation of Scripture will take place primarily within the context of the church and synagogue, those communities that seek to order their common life in accord with their interpretation of Scripture.’]

Interpretation of Scripture ‘should shape and be shaped by the convictions, practices, and concerns of Christian communities as part of their ongoing struggle to live and worship faithfully before God’ (Fowl, Engaging Scripture, 62).

[Cf. also Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life, Biblical Foundations in Theology (London: SPCK, 1991), in which the authors deal with readers as part of embodied Christian communities who read ‘ethically’, and listen to outsiders charitably. Demonstrating that particular understandings of ‘church’ shape one’s interpretation of Scripture, Matthew Levering (‘Ecclesial Exegesis and Ecclesial Authority: Childs, Fowl, and Aquinas’, The Thomist 69, 3 [2005], 407-67) seeks to augment the accounts of Childs and Fowl with reference to the theological exegesis of Aquinas, showing how Aquinas illumines the approaches of Childs and Fowl to ecclesial interpretation.]

Fowl has re-emphasised the point in a more recent essay:

‘The argument in a nutshell is that theology and ecclesiology should drive scriptural hermeneutics, not the other way around.’

[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, here 37.]

A similar sentiment is expressed by Murray Rae:

‘Whatever else may be done outside the ecclesia with the various texts that comprise the Christian Bible, the reading of the Bible, as such, is essentially an ecclesial practice.’

[Murray A. Rae, History and Hermeneutics (London: T&T Clark, 2005) 131, his italics, and see 131-52.]

One of the entailments of this, according to Fowl is that interpretation by the community of faith may read Scripture in different ways at different times, recognising a ‘plurality of interpretive practices and results without necessarily granting epistemological priority to any one of these’ (Engaging Scripture, 10).

A.K.M. Adam likewise holds that the way forward will be along a path which allows for a plurality – though not a limitless number – of readings of a text, where ‘the legitimacy of an interpretation is determined by the body of readers evaluating it’ (Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006], 60). It is clear, however, that not just any reading will do:

‘The constraints upon textual interpretation do not derive from the nature of understanding, or of texts, or of language, or of communicative intent, or of truth, or of speech acts, but always only from the sundry collocations of circumstances within which we formulate interpretations and judgments… Communities of interpreters approve or discountenance proposed interpretations according to criteria that constitute the community.’

[Adam, Faithful Interpretation, 59, 129-30. See the discussion in 57-65 (‘Twisting to Destruction: A Memorandum on the Ethics of Interpretation’), and 81-103 (‘Integral and Differential Hermeneutics: The Significance of Interpretive Difference’), and 14-16. Adam illustrates these concerns with a discussion of alleged anti-semitism in Matthew (67-79, ‘Postmodern Criticism Applied: Matthew’s Readers, Power, and Ideology’), and he illustrates his differential hermeneutics (which allows for different interpretive outcomes rather than assuming a single, correct meaning) with an examination of the sign of Jonah logion in the gospels (125-39, ‘The Sign of Jonah: A Fish-Eye View’), where the history of interpretation does not show ‘a gradual progress toward the single meaning of the sign, but only the waxing and waning of interpretive trends’ (137).]

On such a view, we are to see interpretation as an exercise which takes place within a community of readers with different interests.

[Adam, Faithful Interpretation, 129-30, and see 59: ‘We approve or reject interpretations not on the basis of immutable laws, but on the basis of criteria that we share with particular groups of readers to whom we are accountable.’ Cf. also Rae, History and Hermeneutics, 140: ‘Good reading takes place… in humble recognition that one belongs within and is answerable to a community of readers extended through space and time.’]

Fowl’s position has been nuanced by others.

[See, e.g., Brian Brock, Singing the Ethos of God: On the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 23-34; Jason Byassee, Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine, Radical Traditions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 29-33; Cummins, ‘Theological Interpretation’, 191-93; Levering, ‘Ecclesial Exegesis’, 440-48; Daniel J. Treier, Virtue and the Voice of God: Toward Theology as Wisdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 106-13, 123-27; Introducing Theological Interpretation, 85-92; Donald Wood, ‘The Place of Theology in Theological Hermeneutics’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 4, 2 (2002), 156-71, esp. 162-65.]

Vanhoozer, for instance, is concerned that ecclesiology trumps canon, leaving little room for the church to be critiqued by the voice of God speaking in Scripture. Authority lies not in the interpretive practices of the community, but in the communicative practices of the canon.

[Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Leicester: Apollos, 2002), 275-308 (‘Body Piercing, the Natural Sense and the Task of Theological Interpretation: A Hermeneutical Homily on John 19:34’).]

Treier (Virtue, 126) also seeks to give more space to a normative role for Scripture in the community, that Scripture must stand in a place where it might, if necessary, critique the teaching and practice of the church.

Indeed, we may be grateful for the emphasis on readers and reading communities, but what standing, if any, do the texts have – beyond the standing granted to them by particular readers with particular interests? This is especially the case when those texts are understood as, in some way, the voice of God addressing the church, or understood as part of the canon of Scripture.

Others, too, are unhappy that Fowl underplays authorial intention, subordinating it to the authority of interpretive communities.

[E.g., Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 117, n. 20; Cummins, ‘Theological Interpretation’, 184.]

John Webster cautions against making Scripture captive to ‘the relatively self-enclosed worlds of readerly psyches and habit-forming communities’ (Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001], 45).

Along similar lines, Brevard S. Childs (‘Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis’, Pro Ecclesia 6, 1 [1997], 16-26) notes that ‘traditional Christian exegesis understood its theological reflection to be responding to the coercion or pressure of the biblical text itself. It was not merely an exercise in seeking self-identity, or in bending an inherited authority to support a sectarian theological agenda’ (17).

It should be noted that Fowl does have criteria for ‘the character of Christian practical reasoning’: interpretations must not follow a consumerist model, must not be authoritarian, must operate with the goal of speaking to all Christians, and must be ecumenical in healing divisions among Christians (see Engaging Scripture, 196-206; cf. 62-96).

Leaving aside the validity and usefulness of these criteria (and the question of who gets to formulate them), Levering notes that ‘perhaps the key question… is from where, for Fowl, the ecclesial authority derives its authority’ (‘Ecclesial Exegesis’, 443). For his part, Levering is concerned that Fowl does not ‘give sufficient weight to the embeddedness of Scripture historically within particular sacramental modes of ecclesial authority’ and that his proposal ‘may not fully account for the cruciformity, and thus obedient receptivity, required for the Christian freedom of believers, a particular cruciform freedom that should characterize all Christian biblical interpretation’ (‘Ecclesial Exegesis’, 444).

Such authority, for Fowl, arises out of relationships and friendships, whereby Christians ‘grant to one another interpretive authority’ (Engaging Scripture, 157). Fowl’s subsequent work on Philippians has explored more fully this notion of friendship (Philippians, Two Horizons New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005]).

Levering counters, however, that ‘far from it being the state or the community of believers… who grants the Church interpretive authority, it is Christ who establishes the Church in human history’ (‘Ecclesial Exegesis’, 448).

Furthermore, the identity of the ‘community’ remains problematic. Is it the local church, or a collection of churches, or the ‘universal’ church? (Cf. Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word, 58).

Of course, opposition between ‘text’ and ‘community’ may finally be false, since both are shaped by God and part of the economy of salvation (cf. Levering, ‘Ecclesial Exegesis’, 451). Fowl has reflected on the differences between himself and Vanhoozer on this issue, as has Vanhoozer – although the latter remains concerned about what he sees as the dangers of pragmatism in Adam and Fowl.

[Stephen E. Fowl, ‘Further Thoughts on Theological Interpretation’, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘Four Theological Faces of Biblical Interpretation’, in Adam et al., Reading Scripture, 125-30 and 131-42.]

Some rapprochement between Vanhoozer and Fowl may be necessary in order to hold on to what they each affirm. Along such lines, a recent full-length study sets Fowl and Vanhoozer in dialogue, suggesting a more holistic conception of ‘meaning’, seeking to allow both for the necessity of authorial intention and the practices of the reading community.

[See D. Christopher Spinks, The Bible and the Crisis of Meaning: Debates on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (London: T&T Clark, 2007).]

Despite differences of nuance, all involved in the wider discussion are concerned to promote interpretation as a communal practice that is related to virtue, with virtue becoming a way to think how the character of the interpreter influences reading of Scripture, paying special attention to the role of the church and the formation of its members (Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation, 92-96). It should come as no surprise, then, that those who are interested in theological interpretation of Scripture appeal to the language of wisdom and virtue.

[Esp. David F. Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Treier, Virtue. Wisdom is also the key motif in David F. Ford and Graham Stanton (eds.), Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom: Scripture and Theology (London: SCM, 2003).]

Theological interpretation aids in the cultivation of virtue which, in turn, aids in the practice of theological interpretation. There is an inevitable circularity here, as Fowl notes: ‘Christians will find that interpretations of scripture have already shaped convictions, practices, and dispositions which have, in turn, shaped the ways in which scripture is interpreted. Not only is it impossible to undo this process, it is not clear how one would ever know that one had done so’ (Engaging Scripture, 7).

Adam (Faithful Interpretation, 155-63 [‘Epilogue: Signifying Theology’], and ‘Poaching on Zion’) uses the notion of ‘signifying practices’ to describe what he thinks should be the concerns of theological interpretation and a biblical theology oriented to theological concerns. Signifying practices is a way of ‘understanding the relation of disciplined technical interpretation to theological, ethical, liturgical, and pastoral practice’, and reminds us that ‘all our interpretive discourses involve matters of practice’ (Faithful Interpretation, 18, 159).

No comments: