Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: A Review

I continue my summer review series on theological interpretation of Scripture with Mark Bowald’s Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency (Ashgate, 2007). As the subtitle suggests, Bowald’s main interest is to map the relationship between divine and human agency in a number of prominent exponents of theological hermeneutics,  such as Frei, Vanhoozer, Fowl, and Wolterstorff among others.

The study is valuable on a number of fronts. Bowald’s historical sketch of the eclipse of divine agency in post-Enlightenment epistemology  is tight and suggestive (chapter 1), and his typology for mapping and comparing various figures in the modern discussion on hermeneutics and theological interpretation related to their balancing of divine and human agency  is well-conceived and exceptionally clear (chapters 2-5)—even if you dispute his judgments concerning where particular figures appear in the typology. And, his proposal for a “divine-rhetorical” hermeneutics has left me seriously thinking about its viability (chapter 6. Bowald develops this further in a recent essay: ““The Character of Theological Interpretation of Scripture” in IJST, 12.2 [April 2010]: 162-83).

Because of my current research into theologies of retrieval, my interest in Bowald’s book concerns its relationship to other proposals for theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) that directly or indirectly advocate the retrieval of premodern (or, “precritical”) methods, dispositions, or habits of reading Scripture. Let me comment on what Bowald’s study offers in this regard.

Bowald doesn’t make straightforward appeals to premodern methods or figures, but if appropriated his work would issue in reading practices that have more in common with premodern than post Enlightenment interpreters. This would include interpreting Scripture with or according to a “rule of faith” (43) not because premodern interpreters did—the way some arguments go for a “ruled” reading—but because the Enlightenment (i.e. Kantian) limitation of antecedent judgments is untenable, unliveable, and antithetical to Christian faith itself (ix., 9, 18, 19).

To see antecedent judgments about God’s action as something to set aside is effectively to remove something that constitutes our very lives; dislocating this key activity that constitutes and sustains our spiritual life from the active milieu of the transformative power of the Holy Spirit in the administration of Christ’s Heavenly Session. The attempt to remove ourselves from the divine agency in, with and under this text as an instrument of God’s gracious judgment, salvation, guidance and comfort is, from this perspective, an act of denial or resistance; even defiance (p. 19)

The results of reading as Bowald suggests are more true to the Christian confession that God is active in all things to redeem fallen creation (the doctrines of Trinity and Salvation) and is more similar to the assumptions of premodern interpreters (16, 85). The argument is fundamentally a doctrinal one; the post-Enlightenment ideal of an a-contextual, objective, neutral reader is found corrosive to basic Christian confessions and thereby to Christian readings of Scripture.

Beyond Bowald’s suggestive proposal for a divine-rhetorical hermeneutic, what commends his study is its capacity to bolster at least one dimension of the rationale behind TIS. Let me explain. One commonality among theologies of retrieval (and TIS as a subset) is that in one way or another the intellectual inheritance of post-Enlightenment thought is found corrosive to the Christian confession of the Gospel and to the ministry of the Church. At their best, theologies of retrieval transcend flat-footed repristinations of premodern habits of mind or practices, even though the trajectory set by such projects may issue in the recovery of such habits and practices. TIS is a good example of this, for at its best it recommends more than the simple recovery of premodern practices. So how does Bowald’s study fit into this? By tracing and unmasking the post-Enlightenment epistemological bias against divine agency he demonstrates in a much needed way how theological interpretation of Scripture functions within a wide and diverse array of theologies of retrieval.

I look forward to Bowald’s next project which he tells me is tentatively titled Divine Rhetoric: On Reading Scripture (Eerdmans).

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3 thoughts on “Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: A Review

  1. Pingback: Flotsam and jetsome (6/18) « scientia et sapientia

  2. Thank you for your careful and engaging response to my book. I am very interested in your own efforts to locate TIS within recent trends in so-called theologies of retrieval. I had not given much thought to seeing it in this light but I think it is right headed. (for the record, I believe the term “theological interpretation of Scripture” is redundant, and ephemeral)

    On my own work: you note that I did not make any appeals to premodern interpretive strategies. This was fully conscious and intentional on my part. I am not without ambivalence about locating TIS neatly with retrieval movements for the very reasons you note, that they sometimes look like naive repristinations, like present day conservative cultural pundits longing for good old days which only exist in fictional black and white television series. And I felt there were more important and simple goals in the book that did not require me to signal anything on that score. Having said that, you are right to suggest that if one is sympathetic to the implications of what I was trying to do it necessarily brings one into a more sympathetic orbit with the premodern understanding of hermeneutics and the necessary and positive role of the rule of faith. I myself lean pretty hard that way but I can envision others taking the main point of the book without converting to a retrievalist mindset.

    Likewise I am perfectly happy with disagreements about the location or narrative of development of contemporary thinkers in my typology. The point of the book was not to tell a history or to finally locate individuals, or to argue for one approach over against others. This is a point which was completely missed by one or two other reviewers of the book. (I leave it to others to decide whether the fault for that lay with my writing or their reading or lack thereof.) No, the point was (and is) to encourage a more self-conscious conversation among those from theological, philosophical and biblical studies about the nature of the questions. And if we disagree about how to locate ourselves or others on the typology it means we are having just the kind of discussion which the book was intended to produce and foster.

    In addition to the new book and a few other things I am presently also writing a review article for SBET in which I discuss the implications of the maturing of TIS signaled in the appearance of three student geared textbooks: Joel Green’s “Seized by Truth” (Abingdon), Stephen Fowl’s “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” (Wipf and Stock) and J. Todd Billings’s “The Word of God for the People of God.” (Eerdmans) These three share certain features which indicate a kind of tipping or convergence point for the so-called TIS movement. This settling has, to my mind, broad and profound implications for the church and the academy, and also may present particular challenges for Evangelicalism.

    I will watch the blog and welcome further comments or questions.

    Cheers, Mark Bowald

    • Mark, I appreciate your willingness to interact a bit. Let’s keep in touch.

      I am quite interested to see your review article on Billings et. al. I have read these, and am I considering the possibility that part of my chapter on TIS would profile a couple of these “introductory” texts, together with one or two theological commentaries, and a few scattered efforts on the homiletical front (Pasquarello being one). These focus on the church’s readingand proclamation of the Scriptures and not only the development of theory about the church’s reading and proclamation(not to say that the later is unimportant). I was reading something by R.R. Reno the other day and he footnoted a telling quote by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: “We live in an age of treatise, not commentary.”

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