Wednesday 17 February 2010

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 10

[This is the tenth 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

#8. Its careful attention to the role of the canon and typology

#9. Its renewed reflection on the doctrine of Scripture

#10. Its increasing interest in reception history

Increased interest in theological interpretation has gone hand in hand with an increased appreciation for a study of the ‘reception history’ (Rezeptionsgeschichte) or the ‘history of effects’ (Wirkungsgeschichte) of biblical texts.

[While Wirkungsgeschichte is associated mostly with Hans Georg Gadamer, Rezeptionsgeschichte comes largely from the work of his student, Hans Robert Jauss: Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti, Theory and History of Literature 2 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982). In fact, Thiselton traces ‘history of effects’ back to Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911): ‘Meaning in the public world is largely perceived in relation to some “effect” (Wirkung). Thus Dilthey prepares the ground for Gadamer’s notion of a “history of effects” (Wirkungsgeschichte) or “effective history”.’ See Anthony C. Thiselton, Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise, Scottish Journal of Theology Current Issues in Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 62.]

In view here is the observation that each successive reading of a text shapes the ‘horizon of expectation’ which subsequent readers bring, and so condition how it is understood. Since our horizon has been formed partly by the text and the tradition generated by its interpretation, the presuppositions we bring to the text and the questions we ask of the text are partly the result of our response to that tradition.

[See 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, at 39-45. Cf. also the discussion of Rezeptionsästhetik and speech-act theory as a reconfiguration of reader-response criticism in Anthony C. Thiselton, ‘Communicative Action and Promise in Interdisciplinary, Biblical, and Theological Hermeneutics’, in Roger Lundin, Clarence Walhout, and Anthony C. Thiselton, The Promise of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 191-208.]

The notion of a ‘gap’ between past and present is thus misleading, for there is a ‘much more complex dynamic interrelationship’, in which ‘there can be no self-contained past or present’, but rather ‘a continuing responsible participation in the history of the text’s effects as we try to fuse our horizons without confusing them’.

[Frances M. Young and David F. Ford, Meaning and Truth in 2 Corinthians, Biblical Foundations in Theology (London: SPCK, 1987), 152.]

One early example of such a consideration is Gerhard Ebeling’s comparison of different traditions’ interpretations of biblical texts.

[Gerhard Ebeling, ‘Church History as the History of the Exposition of Holy Scripture’, in The Word of God as Tradition: Historical Studies Interpreting the Divisions of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 11-31.]

More recently, Karlfried Froehlich has sought to continue Ebeling’s task:

‘I have become convinced myself that historical “understanding” of a biblical text cannot stop with the elucidation of its prehistory and of its historical Sitz im Leben, with its focus on the intention of the author. Understanding must take into account the text’s past-history as... the way in which the text itself can function as a source of human self-interpretation in a variety of contexts, and thus, through its historical interpretations, is participating in the shaping of life.’

[Karlfried Froehlich, ‘Church History and the Bible’, in Mark S. Burrows and Paul Rorem (eds.), Biblical Hermeneutics in Historical Perspective: Studies in Honor of Karlfried Froehlich on His Sixtieth Birthday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 1-15, here 9.]

This, then, is more than a mere history of interpretation (Auslegungsgeschichte), but is concerned with impact of texts on ecclesial and non-ecclesial communities (Thiselton, ‘Resituating Hermeneutics’, 40). Different individuals, communities and traditions read the same passages in different situations and against different backgrounds, and ‘these variations of expectation promote an “openness to tradition” that enhances engagement with texts, and enlarges and extends the horizons of the self to listen to “the other”’ (Thiselton, ‘Resituating Hermeneutics’, 44). Along these lines, Wirkungsgeschichte has been a prominent and noted feature of Ulrich Luz’s work on Matthew, and has become increasingly associated with Thiselton’s oeuvre.

[See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, trans. Wilhelm C. Linss (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), 95-99 for discussion; Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, trans. James E. Crouch, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001); Matthew 21-28: A Commentary, trans. James E. Crouch, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005); and esp. Matthew in History, Interpretation, Influence and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994). More generally, see his ‘The Contribution of Reception History to a Theology of the New Testament’, in Christopher Rowland and Christopher Tuckett (eds.), The Nature of New Testament Theology: Essays in Honour of Robert Morgan (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 123-34; Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). See also Craig G. Bartholomew, Joel B. Green, Anthony C. Thiselton (eds.), Reading Luke: Interpretation, Reflection, Formation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series Vol. 6 (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2005), 377-436 (Part 4: Issues in Reception History and Reception Theory, with essays by François Bovon, Andrew Gregory, and Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal Parsons); Angus Paddison, Theological Hermeneutics and 1 Thessalonians, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 133 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 7-9.]

It is also a distinctive feature of the Blackwell Bible Commentary Series (published by Blackwell, edited by David M. Gunn, Judith Kovacs, Christopher Rowland, and John Sawyer).

Strong encouragement has come from some quarters to make ‘history of effects’ an integral part of New Testament exegesis and theology.

[Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 64-68, and see 121-36 (‘The Icon of Peter and Paul Between History and Reception’), and 161-88 (‘Living Memory and Apostolic History’).]

Wirkungsgeschichte has the potential to draw together insights from a variety of approaches to texts. New Testament scholars, suggests Bockmuehl, should ‘adopt the history of the influence of the New Testament as an integral and indeed inescapable part of the exercise in which they are engaged’ (Seeing the Word, 64-65). It preserves an interest in history as well as reception.

[So also Stefan Klint, ‘After Story – a Return to History? Introducing Reception Criticism as an Exegetical Approach’, Studia Theologica 54, 2 (2000), 87-106.]

It shows how the meaning of the text is ‘deeply intertwined with its own tradition of hearing and heeding, interpretation and performance’; it links synchronic and diachronic approaches, as well as biblical studies and historical theology, and might also serve to draw in systematic theologians to reflect on the relationship between systematic theology and biblical studies (Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word, 65-66). Furthermore, ‘it offers a more holistic reading of the biblical text’, and provides a way of paying attention to ‘the social, as well as theological, context which conditioned the interpretation’.

[Christopher Rowland, ‘Wirkungsgeschichte: Central or Peripheral to Biblical Exegesis?’, Scripture Bulletin 36, 1 (2006), 1-11, here 7-8.]

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