Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Daniel Treier. Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Baker Academic, 2008), 221pp. [review copy courtesy of Baker Academic]

Daniel Treier’s Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice is a timely and largely helpful introduction of the growing, diverse movement to recover a distinctively theological interpretation of Scripture broadly known as ‘theological interpretation’ or ‘theological hermeneutics’.

As a mapping exercise, the book provides a useful orientation to the movement’s dominant trajectories, prominent figures, and to the issues most pressing for evangelicals (e.g. preoccupation with authorial intent).

Because Treier’s primary aims are introduction and mapping, his own constructive proposals for theological interpretation are mostly downplayed. However, in those moments when he transitions from exposition to argument, we get tantalizing glimpses of what will hopefully occupy his full attention in subsequent works. For example, with his evangelical readers in mind, Treier searches for a middle ground between ‘reader-response’ approaches and what sometimes appears to be a complete disregard for the ‘reader’ in evangelical hermeneutics. Following a close reading of Gadamer and some discussion of the appropriateness of the evangelical rejection of relativism, Treier makes a measured argument for ‘interpretive plurality’. ‘One gets the idea’ Treier remarks,

that we would have no need for interpretation in an ideal world. But in some respects diversity is a creational and pentecostal reality: redemption does not remove interpretation, but rather its traces of violence and tragedy. God make humans as historical creatures, from which legitimate, loving plurality emerges as we understand texts in particular circumstances. Since understanding involves not only aspects of ideal explanation but also concrete embodiment in forms of life, it seems right to affirm the recent use of “performance” as a metaphor for interpretation. What we must now discern is the nature of faithful performances (p. 148).

Treier is clearly aware of the evangelical worry that attention to the ‘reader’ will devolve into reader-response theory. So toward climbing out of this quagmire Treier suggests we give more diligent attention to the role of divine agency in and on the interpretive process.

Those who pursue theological interpretation of Scripture must give attention to what should be the proper role of the reader, yet they do not necessarily have to adopt reader-response hermeneutics. For instead, theological hermeneutics involves thinking about the nature and nurture of interpretation in light of God, whose action puts reader, text, and author in a larger context that decisively alters the character of their interaction (p. 136. Emphasis mine).

It is entirely appropriate that Treier surfaces the role of divine agency in the church’s own understanding of its interpretative practices but, disappointingly, he leaves this for the most part undeveloped (cf. p. 204).

A further instance in which Treier’s own voice rises above the surface of the introductory and expositional purposes of the book appears in the concluding pages. There he defines theological interpretation in terms of its ultimate aims – the church and her interests – and its distinctive concerns: canon, creed, and culture.

Canon, Treier explains, indicates the fact that ‘theological interpreters are not shy about relating particular passages to the larger context of the entire Bible’; the Old Testament is read in light of the New and visa versa thus affirming the unity of the canon. Creed emphases the Rule(s) of Faith further contexts in which the church’s engagement with Scripture takes place. Reading with the Rule(s) of Faith

entails reading the Bible in light of the trinitarian and christological heritage of the early church that became formalized in symbols such as the Nicene Creed. More broadly, this involves approaching the Scriptures as members of a living tradition stemming from that earlier time period, with the practices and habits of mind that those Christians shared and passed on (p. 201).

Speaking of culture as a concern of theological interpretation registers the cultural locatedness of Biblical interpreters, both now and throughout history. Treier recognizes the modern preoccupation with discarding presuppositions as ‘baggage’ but questions whether this ‘baggage’ actually carries with it that which is essential. ‘What if presuppositions [as baggage] are not a threat to objectivity’ he probes, ‘but rather an aid in preserving it?’

Again, keep in mind that Treier’s stated aims are entirely introductory: to tell the story of a developing movement championing theological interpretation and to map its territory. Toward these ends he is entirely successful. His thorough grasp of the secondary literature is clear throughout and he does a fine job introducing its dominant trajectories and prominent figures. Anyone hoping to orient themselves to this movement and gain a sense of its contours will find this a fruitful launching point.

Regarding Treier’s own constructive proposals, one can only hope his subsequent work will provide him  greater opportunity to build out those under-developed themes first hinted at in Virtue and the Voice of God which occasionally poked their heads above the introductory and expositional material here, such as interpretation as ‘performance’ and the church’s understanding of divine agency as having a real influence on the process of reading Scripture.

It is the later point in fact, our understanding of the role of God and his action in the interpretive process, that will occupy much of our attention in our reading later this fall of Mark Bowald’s book Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mappting Divine and Human Agency. Many thanks to Ashgate for the review copy.

12 thoughts on “Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture

  1. Treier: “What we must now discern is the nature of faithful performances.”

    Treier (and Bowald, referenced at the end of Kent’s post) seem to be taking up where Vanhoozer has left off in his Drama of Doctrine and his preceding tour de force that laid the epistemological groundwork for it, Is There a Meaning in This Text? Both raise the crucial question not only of divine agency but of divine agency as it is designed by revelation to evoke appropriate human agency. It’s as if the reader has to “respond” if revelation is to become truly “meaningful” in both senses implied: That is, 1) only certain “kinds” of “reader response” will contribute to the “meaning” of the text; and 2) even though culture necessarily “contextualizes” the nature of specific human responses, the “appropriateness” of human agency is nevertheless constrained by the telos (or “authorial intent”) of divine agency as illuminated by divine speech.

    It thus seems to me that Treier’s emphasis on the contribution of “christological and trinitarian heritage” to theological interpretation may need to be evaluated as an exercise in how Jesus himself exemplified human agency in response to divine speech under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Does anyone else agree that this trinitarian “spin” on it has more of a “functional subordination” flavor than many of the more recent emphases on trinitarian ontology? How would this emphasis on human agency change the way we approach texts? Can we somehow arrive at a valid hermeneutical methodology (cf. Bowald) that nonetheless allows for contextualized variation in “reader response”?

  2. Dear Jim,

    (Thanks for your email, I will respond to it)

    I am glad for the interest in my work on this blog. I thought I would just make a few comments that will shed light on the relationship of mine to Dan’s and Kevin’s. Dan and I are friends going back to our seminary days. Dan went on to work under Kevin at Trinity and it is very much the case that you should read Dan’s corpus as being in a strong sympathetic relationship to Kevin’s. I went to Wycliffe College in Toronto for my graduate work and was deeply influenced by Postliberalism, Karl Barth, Charles Taylor, Nick Wolterstorff and, most importantly, John Webster. It would be mistaken to see my work as a “continuance” of Kevin’s. Closer to the mark would be to see the trajectory of the development of his work as coming into more and more of a positive and sympathetic relationship to my own (and to John’s) I continue to have some rather pointed and specific concerns about Kevin’s earlier writings which are spelled out in great detail in my book and also in an article in the Westminster Journal of Theology that came out last year. I will keep an eye on this blog and would be happy to constructively engage ideas as possible. Cheers!
    Mark Bowald
    Redeemer University College

  3. Dr. Bowald –

    Thanks for stopping in and discussing the relationship between yours, Vanhoozer’s and Treier’s projects. I am looking forward to starting your book and will drop you a note when we begin interacting with it here on TF.


  4. Jim,

    Let me just take up one more point in your post above for this evening. (well, evening here in Canada)

    I am certain that neither Treier nor Vanhoozer would want you to read their projects as if they are promoting some sort of occasionalism regarding the meaningfulness of Scriture and the role of readers. When they make those gestures they are attempting to think in more actualist terms and reconciling this with their continuing commitments to American Evangelical thought patterns. This relates to a finer point about reading Barth which I am confident you all are learning up there in Aberdeen; that occasionalism is actual but actualism is not necessarily occasional.

    To rephrase things by way of your post, and shifting to my own voice: it is not so much the case that the “reader HAS to respond” but rather that God’s Word is always successful in its purpose which necessarily provokes responses (positive and negative, and all admixtures) in creatures. There is no moment outside of this eventing nor is there any place beyond its reach. (The twin myths of modernity) Whatever we think about the integrity and freedom of the volition of human agents is perenially framed and qualified by this.

    If what you mean in your suggestion above about thinking about the actions and works of Jesus is that it then receives its bearings within this larger divine (and thus Trinitarian) milieu, then I believe I would concur. (I am wrestling with this right now in early stages of my next book which attempts a more substantive proposal for defining what is theological hermeneutics)


    Mark Bowald

  5. Mark, thanks for taking the time to engage this thread.

    I’m not sure I can “swim” with you in our dialogue as far as you’d might like to go, since my background is primarily in medicine, biblical studies, and medical ethics. But I am intrigued by the influence of John Webster on your thinking in theological hermeneutics and would love to receive your recommendation on where to begin reading his work.

    As to your take on my allusion to Jesus’ (human) response to divine agency, I think you read me correctly. I follow your point on human responses as “positive, negative, and all admixtures” but I feel more adept at articulating that point using speech-act terminology: Divine speech embedded in Scripture could be described as having “illocutionary force” designed to evoke certain “kinds” of performances (or “perlocutions”) that suit the “illocutionary intent” embedded in the specific locutions of Scripture. Potential human responses to this illocutionary force will “line up” with illocutionary intent to a highly variable degree that depends on both accurate understanding and obedience to divine agency, so that, in my terms, human perlocutions can be suitable or not…in your terms, “positive” or “negative.”

    Jesus’ consistently perfect obedience to the Father’s voice during his incarnation comprises the quintessence of human agency; he exemplifies for us just the kinds of “suitable” perlocutions the Father desires from his creatures as they “feel” the illocutionary force of his speech-acts in Scripture.

    My questions are these: What is the “ideal” methodology for doing theological hermeneutics that would best surface the embedded illocutionary intent? Would this methodology have to be culture/context- or genre-specific, even if the “illocutionary force” embedded in Scripture is itself constant (reflecting God’s unchanging character)? Is it part of the ontology of progressive revelation that illocutionary force is “progressively elucidated” by divine agency as humanity plays out their “performances” in response to divine initiative throughout history?

    These are the kinds of questions I have tried to address from the epilogue of Ecclesiastes in proposing such a hermeneutic methodology (“Words of Truth and Words of Purpose: Exegetical Insights into Authorial Intent,” available at

  6. Dr. Bowald –

    Your comments reminded me of something Prof. Webster said recently about the various ways the the relationship between divine and creaturely agency can be conceived. He pushed me to consider that these questions cannot be solved in terms of causality alone – but instead must be dealt with first ‘on the level of the character of the agents’ (if I remember him rightly). This is not just an issue about ‘agent’s’ – as agents, he stressed, but primarily about God and who he is, and about human creatures and who they are. To speak of divine agency is then to speak first of this God – this one who elects/wills to stand in a particular kind of relationship to his creatures. This God elects creatures to be willing agents in the covenant and therefore their actions follow from the character of being elected as such. The general thrust of the conversation was that moving the discussion about the relationship between divine and human agency (related to interpretation or whatever) into the abstract register of ‘causality’ and the various attending arguments is the wrong first move.

    I would be intrigued to hear your thoughts considering your comment above regarding ‘Trinitarian milieu’. Something tells me your book will address this – any chance of a preview here?


  7. Thanks, James, for your input on Webster’s work. Mark was not the first to insinuate that we might benefit thereby in the pursuit of a more theological hermeneutical enterprise. I will pursue your recommendation and await Mark’s further advice on Webster and interaction with my own inchoate proposal on appropriate methodology.

  8. I would concur with James’s list but would suggest you read the relevant articles in Word and Church first. On the Dogmatic Location of the Canon is especially important.

    The point Kent raises about the character of the divine speaker is exactly right, in my mind. If there is one singular point to my book that I pray readers take away is the inescapable way that commitments to God’s character are prior and determinative for any and all proposals regarding theological hermeneutics. In it I attempt to demonstrate that these are present in any and all approaches regardless of whether they insist otherwise or ignore that facet alltogether.

    So, Jim, “both accurate understanding and obedience to divine agency” require a sense of the character of that divine speaker. Better than looking for an ideal method is to seek an appropriate set of practices that engender? echo? (John and I have gone round and round over what are good terms here) that character. This heals the rift between knowing and acting that continues to plague modern hermeneutics as well. I really like Augustine on this point in De Doctrina Christiana.

    Speech act theory, aside from whatever other heuristic value it presents (and I mean that sincerely) is utterly ill suited to handle the issue of the character of speakers/authors and how it forms and informs the reading. Vanhoozer is now much more cognizant of these limitations than he was when he wrote ITAM. Better, but still an ad hoc instrument, is rhetorical theory. As John would say: “Let doctrine do the work”.


  9. One more thing,

    Kent, Yes you are picking up on some clues in my posts from my slowly emerging chapters.

    John pressed you on moving from the somewhat abstract point about causality to the more substantive issue of character. I believe the logic flows necessarily that direction and my “Rending the Word” attempts to pursuade people of that very thing.

  10. Mark, I’m not so sure I would limit the value of speech-act theory to heuristic. I don’t deny the importance of appropriate practices that [insert verb here] divine character, but what comes “first”? How can we “know” that character until we seriously engage the vehicle through which that character is revealed? After all, divine agency is first—and thereafter consistently—represented in Scripture primarily as speech; we must begin with vox Dei in order to make sense of and “connect” imago Dei and missio Dei as the intended outcomes of divine agency.

    Humans must therefore first choose to listen to that voice before they learn and know his character and then “perform” as chosen agents in their own right. I would see the role of tradition and community of the people of God through history as contributing to that corpus of the “knowledge” of God, but we are also called to repeatedly expound the Scriptures in our own contexts as we ultimately incarnate vox Dei to those who don’t know Him or need to know him better.

    Regarding rhetorical theory, I see that as fleshed out in the task of delving into how the locutions of divine agency “contain” the telos of the divine agent who seeks to evoke appropriate human agency—first as transformed human character reflecting divine character (imago Dei), and then as appropriate “performance” (with a nod to Treier and Vanhoozer) reflecting missio Dei as it plays out in human history (with a nod to Chris Wright [The Mission of God]).

  11. Dear Jim,

    I am afraid I cannot offer you much by way of response that you will find satisfactory.

    I believe all theories and methods are heuristic. They share this feature with, for one example, metaphors. Metaphors are wonderful tools for illuminating the nature and character of persons and events in novels. There are excellent metaphors and poor ones but their relationship to the people and events they describe is analogous. Metaphors complement one another just as theories and methods do. The explananory power that one lacks another provides. Speech Act theory offers a very useful but limited light of explanation on the agents and events involved in reading Scripture. Rhetorical theory provides another; dogmatics another. Among these some have greater priority than others. I agree with Webster that, ultimately, dogmatics is queen of the hermeneneutical sciences. In addition to Webster’s books and articles the writings of Hans Frei are instructive on the ad hoc nature of methods and theories, as are those of George Lindbeck. (Although Frei is much more the sophisticated of the two in his treatment of biblical hermeneutics)

    I also believe it is mistaken to envision or attempt to explain the reading of Scripture as a series of de novo “firsts” that are initated and animated initially or primarily by human readers engaging the work of dead human authors. This, unfortunately, tends to be the de facto case for biblical studies since the Enlightenment. The problems in this are many. Two of special importance are: First, in these accounts, after God inspires human authors God tends to appear to be on some celestial sideline; which, second, prevents any account of canon other than a purely natural one. (i.e. that the canon is a product of natural human capacities, that manifest themselves in all kinds of religious phenomenon that can be fully explained apart from the existence or activity of God)

    I realize that these observations are very brief. The extended rationale behind them would take much more time and space than is possible here. I felt it would be more respectful to respond to you in some manner rather than “leave you hanging” as it were.

    The books mentioned above are a good starting point to understanding these things even if you continue to disagree with them. I hope and pray mine is as well.

    As is possible I look forward to constructive engagement with you all on this blog and with others (including Mr. Merrick, who has written a very well articulated review of my book). One last book I recommend heartily is the recent “Seized by Truth” by Joel Green. There is no biblical scholar who has articulated an understanding of theological interpretation with which I am as comfortable and in agreement than his there.


    Mark Bowald

  12. Yes, Mark, I too believe I could give a more extended rationale that could embrace the post-Enlightenment concerns you mentioned but am limited by space. In any case I am deeply grateful for your making such a determined effort to engage; I am on my way to Webster and will certainly consider “Seized.”

    BTW, I agree that there is indeed a “queen of the hermeneutical sciences”—yet, while “established” tradition and doctrine are clearly indispensable to theological deliberation, the risks of “institutionalized” doctrine are hardly negligible. I would return our focus to the question of the best methodology (or combination of methodologies) for theological hermeneutics and propose at least that “meaning” and “performance” are in some way mutually informing; “dogmatics” may in fact best develop when theologians “obey” the truth they do know, “performing” it within community and the world.

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