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. This is most apparent in chapters 3 through 5, but he sets the stage by first mapping a way for the Church to understand her reading of Scripture according to a Christological “rule of faith” (chapter 1). This leads naturally into his constructive proposal for a Trinitarian-shaped hermeneutic (chapter 2). And when his attention turns in chapter 3 to revelation, inspiration, and canon we see just how carefully Billings attends to the theological/doctrinal investments arising out of and under-girding his “Trinitarian-shaped” hermeneutic.

The same is true—perhaps even more so—in chapter 5, “Treasures in Jars of Clay”, when he contends that we should discerningly “rediscover and embrace” practices of premodern biblical interpretation as a “supplement” to critical biblical scholarship. The concluding chapter does something few books really do well: ties the threads together into a compelling proposal where earlier moves and explanations are shown not be tangential but inherent to the central argument. It’s fine writing and it’s compelling:

We are seeking to read Scripture as part of the journey of salvation, of healing, of redemption in Christ by the Spirit’s power. . . . Ultimately, Christians should not read Scripture in order to master the biblical text, or even to develop a set of theological concepts. Rather, reading Scripture is about being mastered by Jesus Christ through a biblical text that functionally stands over us as the word of God, not under us as a word we can control, rearrange, and use for our own purposes. Reading the Bible as Scripture involves nothing less than entering into the triune God’s own communicative fellowship (p. 203).

Especially valuable is Billings’ close attention to the relationship between divine and human agency and the knock-on effects this has for pretty much every facet of TIS: what the Scriptures are (inspiration and canon), who we are as its readers and interpreters (hermeneutics, interpretation, worship, the Christian life, and mission), and for God as the one into whose economy of salvation the readers of Scripture are drawn (doctrines of God, incarnation, salvation, and eschatology).

What the attentive reader should discover is that underlying Billings’ entire proposal for a properly Trinitiarian-shaped TIS is a noncompetitive view of divine and human agency that (as best as I can tell) arises out of his doctrine of the Incarnation. “We do not see the divine and human agency in competition” Billings argues, “rather, it is the way God works within history that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ” (p. 158). The effects of this for his proposal are far-reaching, and, at least in my opinion, highly compelling in contrast to others more philosophical, scientific, or linguistic.

In short, The Word of God for the People of God will not disappoint readers looking for an entryway into the theological interpretation of Scripture. Pastors, graduate students, and upper level undergraduates would benefit from his accessible style and informed presentation, and the text could serve equally well in a biblical interpretation course or one in systematic theology. Striking that balance makes for a rare book indeed.

A question for the practice of reading Scripture

I was left with a practical question, however, about the implementation of one of Billings’ pr0posals. He suggests that interpreters of Scripture should

supplement their reading of modern commentaries with reading patristic, medieval, and Reformational commentaries, sermons, and treatises that interpret Scripture. This practice draws on the great variety of premodern exegesis as a rich and varied feast, a renewal of the imagination to show the many ways in which God’s word can function as a word that conforms believers to Christ’s image by the Spirit’s power (p. 149).

Amen (!), and resources such as IVP’s ancient commentary on Scripture go a long way toward helping readers do this, BUT is it realistic to expect the everyday Christian to buy these and have them next to their easy chair? Maybe it stands out to me only because I spend so much time thinking about retrieval, but his recommendation for reading Scripture with the tradition leaves me wondering: how do we actually get “everyday” readers of Scripture, not pastors or professors, to do this?

And maybe it opens up a host of other, equally valid questions: What must local churches do to make such resources more accessible? What will it take for pastors to buy into this themselves? How can we educate congregations about their value and give our people context for them? Or, does Billings’ recommendation simply miss the mark? Perhaps contemporary readers should not concern themselves with reading Augustine, Chrysostom, Luther, Calvin, or Wesley.

These are live questions for me and I am very interested to hear from you. Reactions or suggestions?

9 thoughts on “The Word of God for the People of God: A Review

  1. Pingback: Some recent romps around blogdom … « P e r ∙ C r u c e m ∙ a d ∙ L u c e m

  2. When I read The Word of God for the People of God I was left with pretty much the exact same Amen(!) and the exact same question.

    In my experience its difficult to get “everyday Christians” (at least in my circles) very interested in figures like Augustine, Calvin, Aquinas, etc – even as aids in biblical reading rather than as theoretical theologians.

    I’ve always thought that at least part of what a pastor is doing in giving a sermon is modeling biblical engagement for a congregation – giving them some tools to enter the texts themselves. So perhaps a suggestion might be that pastors should interact with historical exegesis in sermons a bit more, but that’s a difficult thing to do without coming off as if you’re giving a lecture rather than a sermon.

    I interviewed Billings on The Word of God for the People of God a while back here if you’re interested.

    • Mike, I also had the same thought after reading John Thompson’s Reading the Bible with the Dead and David Parris’ Reading the Bible with Giants. Not that they didn’t have suggestions: Thompson recommends “cultivating the habit of history” and Parris counsels preachers to make the history of exegesis a more regular part of their sermons. Considering most lay Christians gain their most regular training in theological reasoning and exegesis from weekly sermons (for better or for worse), you are probably right that the sermon is the first place to begin. But that requires pastors to have a vision for this, and that vision will probably have a better chance of gaining foothold if it starts in seminary. So maybe this all comes back to the theological education of tomorrow’s pastors.

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  4. Kent,

    I had just finished reading the book when your review popped up on TF. In regards to the issue highlighted above by Mike D, I would say that Billings’ proposal is hopelessly optimistic, at least for our generation. Furthermore, even with Billings’ careful qualifications regarding the theological skewing of ancient interpreters whenever we set out to mine the nuggets they do afford, I suspect the dangers for the “everyday Christian” significantly outweigh the potential benefits. We are left, then—as we always have been, with the theological presuppositions in the pulpit to frame the contributions of ancient interpreters to TIS for the everyday Christian.

    I found far more compelling his engagement of Vanhoozer’s work on performance of Scripture. For several years I have been teaching this aspect of interacting with the text to my beginning hermeneutics students as a central part of their term exegesis project and found that this is quite doable, once I am able to draw the appropriate analogies using speech-act theory as both a heuristic and to underscore the importance of the Word of God in eliciting suitable “perlocutions” or performances from the people of God, even in this postmodern era.

    I think Billings does a masterful job of explaining the basic concepts and foregrounding their critical importance for all the people of God. Hence, I believe he does more justice to the title of his book for his target audience than most recent attempts to outline an entryway to TIS like those of Trier and Bowald. In a nutshell, the theological interpretation of Scripture cannot be “hermetically sealed” from the work of the Spirit in the very interpreter charged with responding appropriately to the “illocutionary force” of the locutions comprising the Word of God.

    Along these lines, I have one minor quibble with Billings’ definition of perlocution, which doesn’t adequately capture Vanhoozer’s emphasis (he relies heavily on Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine): In footnote 16 of the final chapter (pp. 207-8), Billings tries to distinguish between an illocutionary and a perlocutionary act as, respectively, one performed “in or through the locution” and “an act performed by saying something.” This is confusing, because there is no substantive difference between the prepositions in, through, and by; i.e., Billings simply defines perlocution in the same way as illocution and misses a golden opportunity to identify perlocutions—as does Vanhoozer—with “suitable performances.” Similarly, he also misses the opportunity to identify his earlier notion (chap. 4) of “the Spirit’s varied yet bounded work” (emphasis mine) with the “suitable performances” that comprise the bounded range of perlocutions for the people of God in response to the Word of God in any particular historical period. Hence, only some perlocutions respond “suitably” to the Word of God. Others clearly do not—even taking into account dramatic differences in contextualization, which gives the lie to most reader-response criticism “out there” in the field of postmodern hermeneutics, as Vanhoozer has so brilliantly set forth in Is There a Meaning in This Text?

    For those interested in the substantive application of speech-act theory to TIS I have reviewed Vanhoozer’s work in precisely this light.

  5. I would straddle the fence upon the questions you posed, and all of them are a good. The topic itself begs for a ecclesial response.

    Here’s one side: I doubt even the most devout man or woman serving in a local congregation that has a library (!) will investigate the volumes. I mention this, as I’ve served in a few Presbyterian churches in NA, and some relatively fresh and engaging dictionaries and encyclopedias sit on the library shelves collecting dust. Much of these texts would fund, correct, and expand the imagination for worship and mission for many of these devout men and women. For some of the churches without a tradition of keeping a theological library on their campuses, the distance from such fine resources is only longer: obvious enough.

    When I’ve suggested to some of the folks I know who have the chops to read such resources, there’s always been a reticence to crack such books, and it’s not entirely a false objection: they don’t want to wade through arguments and data that speak to the author’s colleagues and interlocutors: they want to follow the topic along and determine how it may empower their reading of and faith in the Scriptures.

    Let me also add that in a recent conference our ministry hosted for university students, I found a mixed bag of students regarding their reading skills, as well as a mixed capacity to verbalize their reflections and synthesis. I don’t mean for this get us too far afield, but, here again, there was a troubling inability to read in a way that did justice to the text and allow the text to generate theological replies of worship and mission: and very little initiative to even “connect the dots.” There were some delightful exceptions! Nonetheless, my doubts that anyone will make this pursuit are there on this one side.

    The other side regards something you intimated in a reply to another commenter, viz., getting started with the generation that is receiving theological education. I would want to affirm this in the strongest possible way. Among the few students I mentioned above, I sought them out to encourage their approach, as well as to begin reading some other works, e.g., The Mission of God by Wright, in order to expand some of their budding theological reading of the Bible. We have to take some risks regarding other books, e.g., Billings, to cultivate what someone else coined as TIS! Do nothing: and there’s no change. But, “starting young” could not be affirmed enough; and clearly there is much more that could be discussed in this regard of andragogy and pedagogy.

    I try not to get my hopes up too high, and yet some of the insight and imagination expressed by the students (undergrads at that) could not help but elevate the worship and mission of those listening. Good questions!

  6. “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” – I love the end part of that statement start from “It is not a single, discrete method or discipline” This is absolutely correct.

  7. Definitely, 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. This is an inspired post. Thanks

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