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

Choosing a Theology Text: Life in the Trinity

I am starting a new blog series based on Kent’s increasingly read post on choosing a theology text. This series will look at various volumes for classroom use, sometimes offering one-off reviews and, such as in this case, more in-depth reviews. Here, I am  going to be doing a series of posts looking at Donald Fairbairn’s volume Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers. This volume seems like a good place to start, because Fairbairn wrote the text to be used in classrooms as a secondarily theological text (to be used in parallel with primarily doctrinal texts).

Fairbairn starts, in my opinion, exactly where he should – on the bifurcation of theology and the Christian life. In his explication, he makes an important point:

Theologians have unintentionally given the impression that the doctrines, the ideas about God, are the subject of our study [rather than God himself]. As a result, students and others unwittingly substitute truths about God for God” (5).

To remedy the division between God himself and doctrine, Fairbairn suggests a return to theosis as the thread which ties theological grammar to God himself – as language centered around the relationship of Father to Son shared in by believers in the consummation of all things, and known through a glass darkly in our pilgrim existence. Continue reading

The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Proposal

The question regarding a subjective or objective rendering of pistis Christou has been plagued by an overemphasis on the ability of grammar and linguistics to answer theological questions. Deep exegesis is needed, to be sure, but no number of studies on how Paul tends to use genitive constructions can give us insight into his other usages – that simply is not how human beings use language. The broader theological questions have tended to be ignored, but fortunately, a theologian has taken up the question, and in this post I will outline his argument.

R. Michael Allen, in his volume The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Account (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, 2009) argues for a subjective reading of pistis Christou. Allen focuses his attention on the necessary Christological implications of this kind of reading, arguing for important theological import into Reformed theology specifically. To do so, Allen navigates a critique of Aquinas’ understanding of Jesus’ beatific knowledge (thereby excluding faith for the incarnate One), works alongside Barth and develops his constructive proposal within the broad contours of Reformed theology. Allen invokes Morna Hooker to highlight the general concerns with a subjective reading:

(1) ‘a concern lest this translation undermines the basic Reformation emphasis on faith'; (2) ‘the assumption that faith is an appropriate action for the believer, but is inappropriate for Christ himself'; (3) ‘dislike of the principle of imitatio Christi‘ (25). Continue reading

The Fruit of Doctrine

As most of you know who have followed Theology Forum for any length of time, we have a real interest in the nature and task of theology and the spiritual aspect inherent in being a theologian and to “doing” theology. As we’ve mused on what this might mean, I have looked at several spiritual theologians, and, recently, reviewed Mark McIntosh’s volume Divine Teaching. There, as I noted in my post, he suggests that the outcome of a theology must speak to the quality of the theologizing itself. In other words, good theology will bear good fruit, we may say.

In light of this, I was wondering your thoughts about the inevitable move backwards – judging theology by bad fruit. Could we, for instance, attack an evangelical doctrine of Scripture by pointing out the reality that, were you to go to ETS, you are more likely to find a paper on the use of the aorist-passive in Greco-Roman shipping industry between the years 20-27 than you are to find a paper on a dogmatic account of Scripture? Along these lines, could we point out the seemingly backward use of integration in evangelical theology, commandeering history, philosophy and psychology well before doing any serious dogmatic work – as fruit of a sick tree?

How far can we take some of these issues? Is this a valid theological critique? I’m very aware of how this can be used poorly, but is there a place for this kind of analysis?

Theology on the Way to Emmaus: Hermeneutics, Doctrine and Meaning

We continue our look at Nicholas Lash’s book by picking up his chapter, “What Might Martyrdom Mean?” To set the stage, I will let Lash speak for himself:

There is a received account, in this country, both of the character of these enterprises, and of the relationship between them, which goes something like this. Christian hermeneutics is principally concerned with negotiating the ‘gap’ between what was once said and what might appropriately be said today. The biblical scholar, and the historian of doctrine, are expected to recover, today, what the text meant; the systematic theologian is supposed to transpose the recovered meanings into contemporary idiom; and Christian living is conceived as the practical application…In this essay I propose to indicate some of the reasons why I regard this hermeneutical model as profoundly unsatisfactory” (75).

Lash is allergic to building one’s exposition around what the text “meant” towards what it “means,” and offers a series of responses to Stendahl. First, Lash is concerned about the positivist account that this kind of analysis will bring. What does it mean to exposit what the text meant – apart from what it means? Is this somehow to believe that historical work exists pre-interpretation? Second, Lash is concerned about the meaning of the concept…well…”meaning.” Is the concern Paul’s intent or the Corinthian audience’s reception? Translation, Lash fears, is then pushed to the systematic analysis, and is somehow after the historical task. Continue reading

Theology on the Way to Emmaus: A Theology of History

We continue our look at Lash’s volume, Theology on the Way to Emmaus with the chapter “How Do We Know Where We Are?” As good a question as any I suppose! Lash muses that our trouble with a theology of history is that we have no summit from which to stand beyond and view our situation. Likewise, he adds:

But if the philosophy of history now seems so questionable an enterprise, how much more problematic must be the idea of a theology of history. If ‘the meaning of history’, the idea that history has some single sense or direction, is a will-o’-the-wisp, how much more insubstantial must be any attempt to perceive how such ‘meaning’ stands in relation to the mystery of God” (64).

There is a sense, of course, that to be a Christian, let alone a theologically minded one, is to necessarily be historically minded. Again, Lash states, “To put it as baldly as possible: whatever be the case with some other religions, I do not see how a Christian theology could fail to be, in some sense, a ‘theology of history’ (64). Continue reading

Reading Visual Art as Theological Text

What would it mean to read visual art as theological text?

I have been increasingly interested in the intersection between aesthetic and conceptual The Beauty of the Crosstheology, and given that interest I was supremely delighted with Richard Viladesau’s two volumes The Beauty of the Cross and The Triumph of the Cross (many thanks to Oxford University Press for review copies).

The books are, on Viladesau’s own confession, a project in systematic theology that explore the ‘historical themes, ideas and images that are the necessary background to a contemporary theology of the cross’ (viii). Beginning with earliest Christian visual representations of the cross in the catacombs up through the hymns and art of the Counter Reformation, Viladesau correlates different theological paradigms of interpretation of the cross with artistic styles that illustrate or parallel theological attitudes.triumph_of_cross

Throughout the two volumes Viladesau’s analysis moves smoothly both ways: looking for how the theological attitudes and convictions of a given period influenced the artistic representations of the cross and how the affective and communicative images of a time impacted explicit systematic thought.

An example with several images might be helpful (one I use to introduce students to the importance of considering visual representations of the cross).

Where is the Victorious Christ?

In one of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ, a 5th century ivory casket panel now in the British museum (at right), Jesus is depicted both carrying and cross and crucified. Continue reading