Friday 9 October 2009

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 7

[This is the seventh 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

#7. Its contested dependence on ‘general’ hermeneutics

As might be expected, a range of views may be found on the question of how theological hermeneutics in particular relates to hermeneutics in general.

[See, e.g., Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 127-56; Andrzej Wiercinski (ed.), Between the Human and the Divine: Philosophical and Theological Hermeneutics: Proceedings of the First International Congress on Hermeneutics St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY, USA, May 5-10, 2002, Hermeneutic Series 1 (Toronto: The Hermeneutic Press, 2002).]

Anthony Thiselton poses the dilemma:

‘If hermeneutics is genuinely theological, might not this hermeneutical approach become merely subsumed within, and subservient to, some prior system of theology? Yet, conversely, if hermeneutics is permitted to remain an authentic free-standing, transcendental, independent discipline, in what sense does it still give serious priority to its status as explicitly theological hermeneutics?’

[Anthony C. Thiselton, ‘Resituating Hermeneutics in the Twenty-First Century: A Programmatic Reappraisal’, in Thiselton on Hermeneutics, Ashgate Contemporary Thinkers on Religion: Collected Works (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 33-50, here 37. Cf. Andrzej Wiercinski, ‘Preface’, in Wiercinski (ed.), Between the Human and the Divine, xii: ‘ How can theology appropriate hermeneutic philosophy without losing its specific character, that is, without accommodating itself to a criterion of rationality alien to its own horizon of understanding? On the other hand, how can philosophical hermeneutics engage theology without conceding its rigorous criteria of independent research to a religious Weltanschauung?’]

On the one side are those who argue that theological approaches to interpretation should be accountable to general hermeneutics.

[E.g., Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, ‘The Conflict of Hermeneutical Traditions and Christian Theology’, Journal of Chinese Philosophy 27:1 (2000), 3-31; Werner G. Jeanrond, Text and Interpretation as Categories of Theological Thinking, trans. Thomas J. Wilson (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), and Theological Hermeneutics: Development and Significance (London: SCM, 1991); Alexander S. Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, SCM Core Text (London: SCM, 2007).]

On the other side are those who argue for a specifically theological hermeneutic rather than take recourse to general hermeneutical theories.

[E.g., Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 28-31; cf. Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life, Biblical Foundations in Theology (London: SPCK, 1991), 4-21; Murray A. Rae, History and Hermeneutics (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 149-51; Francis Watson, Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994); Charles M. Wood, The Formation of Christian Understanding: Theological Hermeneutics, 2nd edn. (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993). Note also 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, who declares that ‘theological interpretation of the Bible is not an imposition of a general hermeneutic or theory of interpretation onto the biblical text’ (19).]

In fact, according to Donald Wood, Fowl and Jones don’t go far enough; their approach is ‘inadequately informed by specifically Christian doctrine’.

[Donald Wood, ‘The Place of Theology in Theological Hermeneutics’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 4, 2 (2002), 156-71, here 161.]

Wood explains that Fowl ‘adopts an antifoundationalist epistemology, and then asks what a postmodern ecclesiology, doctrine of scripture and theological hermeneutics might look like’ (‘Place of Theology’, 164), and thus ends up relying on sociological rather than theological categories in the first place. He contrasts this with Karl Barth, for whom hermeneutics is part of theology, not merely what is done before theology begins. Hermeneutics construed as ‘uninterruptedly theological’ means that ‘one need not necessarily accept the terms upon which the current debate over general and special (theological) hermeneutics often takes place’ (‘Place of Theology’, 170).

For John Webster, likewise, interpretation of the Bible is ‘a matter for theological description’.

[John Webster, ‘Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections’, Scottish Journal of Theology 51, 3 (1998), 307-41, here 307.]

‘[T]he church’s reading of the Bible will not be conceptualised via an aesthetic of the classic, a critical theory of communicative action, or an archaeology of tradition, but by the doctrines of God, Christ, Spirit, salvation and church’ (‘Hermeneutics’, 323).

Webster is fearful that general hermeneutical theory assumes a view of the self, independent from God, making judgments. He emphasises a theological construal of the Bible as the Word of God, where God’s agency is real and effective, and where God’s self-communication is free, sovereign, and purposive (‘Hermeneutics’, 323-29). Hence, the search for a general theory of understanding is immaterial to a Christian reading of Scripture as the Word of God.

[Cf. also Angus Paddison, ‘Scriptural Reading and Revelation: A Contribution to Local Hermeneutics’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 8, 4 (2006), 433-48, at 435: ‘Theological hermeneutics concerns itself with the readers of scripture and the reading of this text as well as God’s grace will allow. Theological hermeneutics does not view as its first priority excursions into adjoining non-theological disciplines, either for means of attack or enlisting support.’]

Kevin J. Vanhoozer has characterised his approach in his Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Leicester: Apollos, 1998) as ‘a theological general hermeneutic because [he] construed the postmodern dissolution of determinate meaning as the result of certain theological moves, in particular, a denial of orthodox Christian doctrines such as creation, incarnation, and sanctification’. Now, however, seeking to ‘attend to what is distinctive about the Bible or to its interpretation in the church’, he is ‘inclined to pursue a theological special hermeneutic that recognizes (contra Jowett) the ways in which the Bible is not to be read “like any other book.”’

[Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘Imprisoned or Free? Text, Status, and Theological Interpretation in the Master/Slave Discourse of Philemon’, 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), 51-93, at 60-61, noting that he sees this not as a ‘conversion’ from or a ‘retraction’ of his former position, ‘but rather its enrichment’!]

Others suggest that general and special hermeneutics ‘may share much overlapping territory’, and that ‘since its entire realm concerns living virtuously in communion with God according to the image of Christ, all understanding has a theological component’ (Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation, 156).

Jens Zimmerman, reflecting theologically on the hermeneutical implications of the incarnation, addresses general hermeneutics in a Christian fashion. Theologians can learn from Heidegger, Gadamer, and Derrida that all knowledge is hermeneutical, in that it is historically conditioned and interpreted.

[Jens Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 145, 163, 318.]

According to Zimmermann, Gadamer’s ‘path-breaking’ critique of Enlightenment scientism relies heavily on ‘unacknowledged theological assumptions’ (Recovering Theological Hermeneutics, 159).

[See also Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘Discourse on Matter: Hermeneutics and the “Miracle” of Understanding’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 7, 1 (2005), 5-37, reprinted in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, James K.A. Smith, and Bruce Ellis Benson (eds.), Hermeneutics at the Crossroads, Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 3-34.]

Zimmermann applies the theological category of the incarnation to human understanding. One implication of this, for Zimmermann, is we are not required to overemphasise either transcendence or difference. Incarnational theology allows for transcendence and difference: in the incarnation, ‘divine otherness is fully maintained and yet humanity is fully represented’ (Recovering Theological Hermeneutics, 285).

[Cf. Tim Meadowcroft, ‘Between Authorial Intent and Indeterminacy: The Incarnation as an Invitation to Human-Divine Discourse’, Scottish Journal of Theology 58, 2 (2005), 199-218, for whom the incarnation provides a model not merely for understanding the nature of the Scriptures, but also for the process of interpretation itself.]

This brings us back to the dilemma expressed by Thiselton: how should the hermeneutics in ‘theological hermeneutics’ be taken seriously without capitulating to autonomous, secular philosophy? On the one hand, Thiselton is fearful that a ‘regional’ hermeneutics ‘concerns only retrospective reflection’ and ‘serves only self-affirmation’. On the other hand, understanding ‘should accord with the nature of that which it seeks to understand, and that in the case of theology and theological texts this must be an explicitly theological understanding’ (‘Resituating Hermeneutics’, 37).

‘[H]ermeneutics must resist becoming assimilated into a prior system of theology, and… theology must avoid compromise by being shaped by an independent discipline of hermeneutics.’

[Anthony C. Thiselton, ‘A Retrospective Reappraisal of Part VII: The Contributions of the Five Essays to Hermeneutics, and the Possibility of Theological Hermeneutics’, in Thiselton on Hermeneutics, 793-807, here 802.]

Thiselton seeks to avoid collapsing either side of the dilemma (‘Resituating Hermeneutics’, 38; ‘Retrospective Reappraisal’, 802). What is required is a dialectic, which begins with the particular and contingent, which ‘operates interactively with a search for theological coherence’, where ‘we might hope for a hermeneutic that leaves room for an “open” system within which cross-currents of diverse motivations and conflicting voices contribute to ongoing understanding’. Such a process will stand ‘under criteria derived from the biblical writings as decisive for the basis of Christian identity’ (‘Retrospective Reappraisal’, 803). Thiselton avers that although we need to take sin and human fallibility into account, we may follow the example of Paul himself who used argument, and appealed to rational judgment and understanding, and did not see these in competition with the work of the Holy Spirit (‘Retrospective Reappraisal’, 804-805).

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