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.
Patrick Willson’s excellent reflections on preaching as theological interpretation of Scripture raise questions for me about the role of the historical-critical method for theological preaching:
The stimulating academic conversations regarding the theological interpretation of Scripture notwithstanding, theological interpretation occurs regularly in the ‘retail market’ of local congregations as the Scriptures are preached and taught. . . .
Preachers may have been the canaries in the exegetical coal mines gasping for breath well before Walter Wink announced “the bankruptcy” of the historical critical method. Perhaps they were too shy to say anything or were fearful no one would listen or they were embarrassed that they were not able to make the method produce the promised results. Pastors doing serious exegesis could determine with some accuracy “what the text meant” but struggled to discover preachable meanings. When understanding preaching as interpretation of Scripture seemed so unprofitable, homileticians helpfully provided alternatives – e.g. the volumes of therapeutic preaching and the “preaching as” books (“preaching as story-telling,” “preaching as poetry,” “preaching as performance art,” etc.). Recovering the notion of preaching as theological interpretation of Scripture promises nothing less than a renewal of vocation for preachers. (“A View from the Retail Market: The Promise of Theological Interpretation of Scripture for Preaching” in Journal of Theological Interpretation 2.2 (2008) 213-229.
One of the questions it raises (to me at least) is How do preachers go about learning to preach theologically, and when I say “theologically” I mean preaching that is drawing upon and intentionally in conversation with Christian doctrine (something nowadays found antithetical to preaching funded by the historical-critical method). Recent commentary series such as Eerdmans’ The Church’s Bible and IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture suggest one approach to answering the “how” question: apprenticeship to the Christian Tradition’s great theologian/preachers such as Chrysostom, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Barth, and Wesley.
Does anyone resonate with this?
The spring issue of the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology is out. Kyle and I have reviews in it, but I guarantee neither of us said anything remotely as cheeky as Oliver O’Donovan in his review of John Milbank’s latest book, The Future of Love. Ouch!
Given how much Milbank’s thought revolves around the themes of beauty, art, and the poetic work of thought, it is strange that he should constantly express himself in prose that is ill-formed, congested, and inexpressive, giving the appearance of being simply spilled onto the page. `One should exhibit and offer a ruin’, he tells us, justifying the incomplete character of his thought. As those who live in Scotland have reason to know, ruins may be beautiful; Milbank’s, most of the time, are not (p. 107).
Other reviews of note are D. Stephen Long’s devastating review of Jay Richards Money, Greed, and God, Kim Fabricius’ punchy review of Michael Pasquarello’s We Speak Because We Were First Spoken, and I. Howard Marshall’s review of a new introduction to the New Testament.
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. Continue reading
It has just been announced that N.T. Wright will be leaving his post at Durham and taking the Chair of New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews. Read the press release from the School of Divinity here or from the Church of England here. If you wondered where to study New Testament in Great Britain, your decision may have just gotten easier (Steve is obviously pleased he will be heading there in the fall).
Let him, therefore, who is to be taught the truth in regard to piety be instructed before his baptism in the knowledge of the Unbegotten God, in the understanding of His Only-begotten Son, in the assured acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit. Let him learn the order of the several parts of the creation, the series of providential acts, the different workings of God’s laws.
Let him be instructed about why the world was made, and why man was appointed to be a citizen in it; let him also know about his own human nature, of what sort of creature he is; let him be taught how God punished the wicked with water and fire, and glorified the saints in every generation, . . . and how God did not reject mankind, but called them from their error and vanity to acknowledge the truth in various stages of history, leading them from bondage and impiety to liberty and piety, from injustice to justice, from death eternal to everlasting life (Apostolic Constitutions, 7.39.1-4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 7:475-76, quoted by D.H. Williams in Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation [Baker, 2006], p. 82).
These 4th century instructions for how the church should prepare and instruct those seeking baptism in the basics of the Christian faith—that God is Triune, that he alone made the world, etc.—should challenge or at least cause some pause for churches who send people very quickly from profession of faith into baptism.
Has there been such an underestimation of the radical reversal that attends Christian conversion that we suppose new believers need no instruction or mentoring in their new identity prior to their public declaration of faith? Even with all the evidence to the contrary, do we assume that the average person in the post-Christendom West would have a basic understanding of the Christian faith and would not require instruction? Or, have we too often proclaimed a Gospel of easy-believism that bears little resemblance to the New Testament Gospel—a gospel that inverts my allegiances, re-orients my priorities, and re-narrates my life?
Or (less insidiously and maybe more likely), Continue reading
Lord God, Almighty and Everlasting Father, we praise you for your faithfulness when we have none.
In our faithlessness you have not turned your back on us, and we anchor our hope to your embodied faithfulness in Jesus Christ.
May we be quick to confess our faithlessness.
We are complacent regarding the brokenness and groaning around us and in us, and we reason away and justify our faithlessness with terms other than “sin.”
May we be quick to embody your faithfulness.
Make us ready to join you in your work, following you into the grieving and groaning spaces that fill our countries, towns, families, churches, and inner lives through Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.
What I am trying to generate with this question is some discussion about the role of virtue in the act of interpreting Scripture. Is there such a role? What would that role entail? What would it look like for the everyday reader of Holy Scripture?
The predominance of the historical-critical method for interpreting Scripture has made it difficult, or at least not self-evident, to speak about the place of interpretive virtue. For example, when reading Augustine’s On Christian Teaching with my students, they don’t quite know what to do with his interpretive model. Augustine first outlines the necessity of the reader’s fear of the Lord, holiness, and obedience to Scripture (even if we don’t fully understand it!) prior to the stage he describes as “knowledge” (II.11-26). Without the prior establishment of the reader’s disposition before God and their relationship to him through obedience, Augustine simply doesn’t consider him or her ready to pursue the knowledge of the Scriptures we would most readily associate with “finding its meaning.”
To give us someplace from which to begin, we might take the list of interpretive virtues provided by Richard Briggs in his recent book The Virtuous Reader: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue (Baker, 2010). Briggs’ study is an extended exploration of what kind of reader one should be in order to be “best situated to receive, understand, and embody the life-transforming concerns of the Old Testament.” He lists the following five virtues, and I will give you an extended look at the later four: humility, wisdom, trust, love, and receptivity.
Wisdom – probably the strongest candidate for a virtue greatly to be sought after by the reader of Scripture [...]
Trust – the virtue of hermeneutical trust is just beginning to reemerge in recent theological reflection after a lengthy period where suspicion has been so easily the default mode of biblical interpretation [...] Continue reading
Anyone defending their dissertation dreams the viva (defense) will reward all the blood, sweat, and tears with challenging but fair questions and the coveted “minor corrections.” Leading up to the viva, the expectation and sense of foreboding is incredible. In the British system, until that fateful meeting, until you walk through those doors, your examiners have given you zero feedback; how your dissertation has been received is a total mystery!
Well, I am delighted to report — and I never doubted it would turn out any other way — that Kyle successfully defended his dissertation, received minor corrections that were speedily completed the next day (modifying a few section headings and the like), and is now Dr. Kyle Strobel. Congratulations Kyle and job well done!
A little about Kyle’s labor of love. His dissertation devoted itself to a trinitarian reading of Jonathan Edwards’ theology of redemption, and he describes it as follows:
This thesis has a threefold structure which provides a “top-down” read of Edwards’ theology. In advancing Edwards’ theology as fundamentally trinitarian, we start with God in se, as the “fountain” from which history and reality flows. Second, we place God’s economic movement in creation in parallel with the saints’ participation in the beatific life of the Godhead in eternity. God’s act and purpose in creation parallels his act and purpose in consummation, thereby bracketing and governing the work of redemption. Lastly, we broadly answer the question: “How does God redeem the elect?” by addressing spiritual knowledge, regeneration and affection. By addressing the nature of the triune God with this God’s purpose and aim in creation, we offer a systematic reconstruction of redemption.
We all look forward to reading it when it hits the presses buddy!
I have posted comments on the conference in Wheaton I attended last week, and I would like to post one last time specifically on the public use of creeds in noncreedal, evangelical churches. This was a common refrain throughout the conference, and Scot McKnight’s paper made a specific proposal we might consider.
In McKnight’s paper he referred to noncreedal, evangelical churches as “populist evangelicalism,” and most, if not all, evangelical, nondenominational churches would fall within the same category (this is my opinion, not McKnight”s).
He summarized the theological, ecclesiastic function of the earliest Christian creeds as articulations of the gospel (what it is and does) that served to connect newly baptized and mature Christians alike to the gospel and to the church; the creeds were ways of providing “clarity, heritage, depth, width, and memory.” For the forms of evangelicalism McKnight has in mind, the absence of any public reading of the creeds “deprives” them of the very same clarity, heritage, depth, width, and memory and leads to a “theological superficiality” few of us familiar with populist evangelicalism would deny (I grew up in a noncreedal church and served on the pastoral staffs of several nondenominational churches).
So consider McKnight’s proposal, and let me know whether you think it hits the mark. I will put my cards on the table upfront: I think it does.
I propose that we who believe in the value of creeds become active in getting our churches, especially if we are part of a church tradition that does not recite The Creed publicly, to begin a course of instruction for the elders, deacons and teachers on the history of the creeds. And I don’t mean read a book about them; I mean read them and study them together. Continue reading
The second day of the conference I attended in Wheaton featured several excellent papers, not the least of which was Scot McKnight’s. I could comment on any number of his points (and I very well might next week), but for now allow me a few remarks on his thoughts regarding the publishing habits of Christian academics and his call for theologians to write for the church and not just for the academic guild.
Most of you write things no one but specialists can understand. Most of the people in your church, and probably more than most, aren’t reading the sorts of things professors write these days. Some professors think they are writing popular theology because they don’t overload their books with footnotes. Instead, they’ve only got about 100 footnotes in a 200 page book. That’s not popular theology. [...]
The need here is so great that one is tempted to call a moratorium on evangelical theologians writing for the guild, or at least reducing their guild writing and require each theologian, each biblical expert and each church historian to write one book for the church – for ordinary lay people with enough snap to it to make it genuinely readable, pleasurable and inspiring – before they can write academic pieces. [...]
Now let me do some fingerpointing: Continue reading
I am attending a conference in Wheaton, Evangelicals and the Early Church, and Christopher Hall gave an especially insightful paper this morning (the best of the day). Hall explored causes behind, or reasons for, what he termed “evangelical inattentiveness” to early Christian voices.
According to Hall, and I thought this was brilliant, evangelicals have low attention spans; they want immediate answers that don’t require patient reading of difficult texts. As he put it, “Give me soundbites, not discourse!” Hall contends, however, that ancient texts require a patient mind and heart. They demand “theological empathy”, not rejecting out of hand difficult or foreign ideas.
Required of us is not the impatience that characterizes much of contemporary evangelical thought but “slow-paced” reading with the dispositions, community, and “habit patterns” of our forebears. Evangelicals, if they are going to retrieve the sources of the early church, must also retrieve the habit patterns of the patristic writers such as patience, repetition, wisdom, and discernment.
Do you resonate with Hall’s point concerning evangelical impatience?
The American Protestant theologian Paul L. Lehmann (1906-1994) was one of the premier theological ethicists of his generation and held professorships at, among others, Princeton Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, and Union Theological Seminary. Lehmann was a careful reader of Barth and a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom had a great impact on his work. I began reading Lehmann a couple years ago while copy-editing a collection of essays on his thought. That volume has just been released from Ashgate, Explorations in Christian Theology and Ethics, and I will be reviewing it here shortly.
The times are never as auspicious as the making ready to the battle seems to require. Your times are no exception [...]
In our present pre-occupations: with experience over tradition, with immediacy over understanding, with immanence over transcendence, self-consciousness over obedience, we are not only in violation of the first and second commandments by which Jesus joined himself to Moses but are risking sending you out upon your several ministries with trumpets ill-equipped for giving no uncertain sound … how can we make you ready for battle?
The answer is: in the power of the Presence Before, Behind, and In Your Midst! – the Presence of Jesus Crucified and Risen, who meets us as He said He would in the sharing of the bread, which is the communion of the body of Christ, and in the drinking from the cup, which is the communion of the blood of Christ! It is He who dissipates our vacuum and makes us ready to the battle of no uncertain sound! Continue reading
We have batted around the continuities and discontinuities between contemporary evangelicalism (of the N. American and British varieties) and 20th century fundamentalism, and I am afraid we never get very far. Perhaps it’s the nature of this particular conversation, but I remain interested in the subject. Teaching in an institution of Christian higher education with historical ties to fundamentalist Christianity means the general tendencies are never far off. So I was intrigued to see a post by Geoffrey Holsclaw on the dynamic between recent postmodern revisions to Christianity and their relationship to the very fundamentalist forms of thought and commitments they try and overcome.
Holsclaw suggests that at least three forms of thought which claim to move beyond fundamentalism under the guise of postmodern re-alignments are simply inversions of fundamentalism all over again: inerrancy to pure errancy, biblical primitivism to rabbinic primitivism, and conservative anti-intellectualism to liberal anti-intellectualism. Read the entire post here, but let me highlight for discussion his comments on anti-intellectualism (he has the emergent church crowd in mind):
I’ve become more and more concerned at a creeping anti-intellectualism among some of the loudest voices who rest on rhetorical questions, anecdotal evidence, and communal experiences over philosophical and theological articulation and argument. This, I believe, follows from the previous inversions because your don’t have to really say anything or land anywhere because we are all merely in an endless conversation. Essentially, everything is a rhetorical display without any real substance. Continue reading