With classes wrapped up and grades finally in I am starting a summer review series on the theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS). A chapter in my book on theologies of retrieval will survey this as one of several instances of retrieval for the life of the Church, so I will be spending the next month or so working through recent publications.
I begin with J. Todd Billings’ The Word of God for the People of God (Eerdmans, 2010), a timely and well-crafted addition to the growing—but often highly specialized and technical—body of scholarship on theological hermeneutics and interpretation. This book, however, is aimed toward readers who Billings describes as having a love for Scripture and Christian ministry, but have “no idea why they should be interested in ‘the theological interpretation of Scripture.’”
The question is well put, and I have had a number of conversations with students and fellow academics about the very same. In fact, an NT scholar candidly asked me not long ago (without hiding a bit of skepticism) to define TIS. From what I have seen in the literature, Billings’ definition is an excellent place to start (see also the April issue of IJST):
the theological interpretation of Scripture is a multifaceted practice of a community of faith reading the Bible as God’s instrument of self-revelation and saving fellowship. It is not a single, discrete method or discipline; rather, it is a wide range of practices we use toward the goal of knowing God in Christ through Scripture (xii).
Billings’ treatment of TIS stands out because of its consistent attention to the theological/doctrinal commitments that fund TIS. This is most apparent in chapters 3 through 5, but he sets the stage by first mapping a way for the Church to understand her reading of Scripture according to a Christological “rule of faith” (chapter 1). This leads naturally into his constructive proposal for a Trinitarian-shaped hermeneutic (chapter 2). And when his attention turns in chapter 3 to revelation, inspiration, and canon we see just how carefully Billings attends to the theological/doctrinal investments arising out of and under-girding his “Trinitarian-shaped” hermeneutic.
The same is true—perhaps even more so—in chapter 5, “Treasures in Jars of Clay”, when he contends that we should discerningly “rediscover and embrace” practices of premodern biblical interpretation as a “supplement” to critical biblical scholarship. The concluding chapter does something few books really do well: ties the threads together into a compelling proposal where earlier moves and explanations are shown not be tangential but inherent to the central argument. It’s fine writing and it’s compelling:
We are seeking to read Scripture as part of the journey of salvation, of healing, of redemption in Christ by the Spirit’s power. . . . Ultimately, Christians should not read Scripture in order to master the biblical text, or even to develop a set of theological concepts. Rather, reading Scripture is about being mastered by Jesus Christ through a biblical text that functionally stands over us as the word of God, not under us as a word we can control, rearrange, and use for our own purposes. Reading the Bible as Scripture involves nothing less than entering into the triune God’s own communicative fellowship (p. 203).
Especially valuable is Billings’ close attention to the relationship between divine and human agency and the knock-on effects this has for pretty much every facet of TIS: what the Scriptures are (inspiration and canon), who we are as its readers and interpreters (hermeneutics, interpretation, worship, the Christian life, and mission), and for God as the one into whose economy of salvation the readers of Scripture are drawn (doctrines of God, incarnation, salvation, and eschatology).
What the attentive reader should discover is that underlying Billings’ entire proposal for a properly Trinitiarian-shaped TIS is a noncompetitive view of divine and human agency that (as best as I can tell) arises out of his doctrine of the Incarnation. “We do not see the divine and human agency in competition” Billings argues, “rather, it is the way God works within history that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ” (p. 158). The effects of this for his proposal are far-reaching, and, at least in my opinion, highly compelling in contrast to others more philosophical, scientific, or linguistic.
In short, The Word of God for the People of God will not disappoint readers looking for an entryway into the theological interpretation of Scripture. Pastors, graduate students, and upper level undergraduates would benefit from his accessible style and informed presentation, and the text could serve equally well in a biblical interpretation course or one in systematic theology. Striking that balance makes for a rare book indeed.
A question for the practice of reading Scripture
I was left with a practical question, however, about the implementation of one of Billings’ pr0posals. He suggests that interpreters of Scripture should
supplement their reading of modern commentaries with reading patristic, medieval, and Reformational commentaries, sermons, and treatises that interpret Scripture. This practice draws on the great variety of premodern exegesis as a rich and varied feast, a renewal of the imagination to show the many ways in which God’s word can function as a word that conforms believers to Christ’s image by the Spirit’s power (p. 149).
Amen (!), and resources such as IVP’s ancient commentary on Scripture go a long way toward helping readers do this, BUT is it realistic to expect the everyday Christian to buy these and have them next to their easy chair? Maybe it stands out to me only because I spend so much time thinking about retrieval, but his recommendation for reading Scripture with the tradition leaves me wondering: how do we actually get “everyday” readers of Scripture, not pastors or professors, to do this?
And maybe it opens up a host of other, equally valid questions: What must local churches do to make such resources more accessible? What will it take for pastors to buy into this themselves? How can we educate congregations about their value and give our people context for them? Or, does Billings’ recommendation simply miss the mark? Perhaps contemporary readers should not concern themselves with reading Augustine, Chrysostom, Luther, Calvin, or Wesley.
These are live questions for me and I am very interested to hear from you. Reactions or suggestions?