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.
Bowald doesn’t make straightforward appeals to premodern methods or figures, but if appropriated his work would issue in reading practices that have more in common with premodern than post Enlightenment interpreters. This would include interpreting Scripture with or according to a “rule of faith” (43) not because premodern interpreters did—the way some arguments go for a “ruled” reading—but because the Enlightenment (i.e. Kantian) limitation of antecedent judgments is untenable, unliveable, and antithetical to Christian faith itself (ix., 9, 18, 19).
To see antecedent judgments about God’s action as something to set aside is effectively to remove something that constitutes our very lives; dislocating this key activity that constitutes and sustains our spiritual life from the active milieu of the transformative power of the Holy Spirit in the administration of Christ’s Heavenly Session. The attempt to remove ourselves from the divine agency in, with and under this text as an instrument of God’s gracious judgment, salvation, guidance and comfort is, from this perspective, an act of denial or resistance; even defiance (p. 19)
The results of reading as Bowald suggests are more true to the Christian confession that God is active in all things to redeem fallen creation (the doctrines of Trinity and Salvation) and is more similar to the assumptions of premodern interpreters (16, 85). The argument is fundamentally a doctrinal one; the post-Enlightenment ideal of an a-contextual, objective, neutral reader is found corrosive to basic Christian confessions and thereby to Christian readings of Scripture.
Beyond Bowald’s suggestive proposal for a divine-rhetorical hermeneutic, what commends his study is its capacity to bolster at least one dimension of the rationale behind TIS. Let me explain. One commonality among theologies of retrieval (and TIS as a subset) is that in one way or another the intellectual inheritance of post-Enlightenment thought is found corrosive to the Christian confession of the Gospel and to the ministry of the Church. At their best, theologies of retrieval transcend flat-footed repristinations of premodern habits of mind or practices, even though the trajectory set by such projects may issue in the recovery of such habits and practices. TIS is a good example of this, for at its best it recommends more than the simple recovery of premodern practices. So how does Bowald’s study fit into this? By tracing and unmasking the post-Enlightenment epistemological bias against divine agency he demonstrates in a much needed way how theological interpretation of Scripture functions within a wide and diverse array of theologies of retrieval.
I look forward to Bowald’s next project which he tells me is tentatively titled Divine Rhetoric: On Reading Scripture (Eerdmans).