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.