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.

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Preaching as Theological Interpretation of Scripture

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 Word of God for the People of God: A Review

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