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Stephen Fowl on Theological Interpretation

At the new Christian Theology on the Bible blog, fellow Wipf & Stocker, Chris Spinks is posting a series of quotes from Stephen Fowl’s forthcoming book on Theological Interpretation of Scripture in our Cascade Companions series. Other notable books in the series include Michael Gorman’s Reading Paul and D. Stephen Long’s Theology and Culture. This new book by Fowl is sure to be a good one.

Here’s the first quote that Chris has posted so far:

Open up virtually any biblical commentary written before the 16th century; then look at the discussion of that same passage in virtually any commentary written after 1870. The differences are so significant that a beginning student may well wonder if these two commentaries are actually speaking about the same biblical text. I can think of no better way to begin to think about the role of history and historical criticism in theological interpretation than to perform this exercise.

Pre-modern interpretation is very different from the types of interpretation you encounter in a modern biblical commentary or article. Understanding the nature of this difference is what is most important for now. If you have already been exposed to some pre-modern interpreters, they may seem less strange. For many students, however, their encounter with pre-modern interpretation can seem like traveling to a different planet. It may be tempting to think that the difference between pre-modern interpreters and us is that they had a naïvely literalistic understanding of the Scripture, that they read the gospels with harmonizing eyes such that they neglected or glossed over textual puzzles. Although there may be some examples of these interpretive flaws, they are not characteristic of pre-modern interpretation at its best. Pre-modern interpreters understood that Scripture was extraordinarily diverse, and contained various textual puzzles and obscurities.

For the most part, the various interpretive practices common in the pre-modern period arise from Christian theological convictions. Scripture was seen as God’s gift to the church. Scripture was the central, but not the only, vehicle by which Christians were able to live and worship faithfully before the triune God. It is also the case that faithful living, thinking, and worshipping shaped the ways in which Christians interpreted Scripture. At its best, the diversity and richness of the patterns of reading Scripture in the pre-modern period are governed and directed by Scripture’s role in shaping and being shaped by Christian worship and practice. Ultimately, Scriptural interpretation, worship, and Christian faith and life were all ordered and directed towards helping Christians achieve their proper end in God.

It is important to understand that the difference between modern and pre-modern biblical interpretation is not due to the fact that we are smart and sophisticated while they are ignorant and naïve. Instead, modern biblical study is most clearly distinguished from pre-modern interpretation because of the priority granted to historical concerns over theological ones. Ultimately, if Christians are to interpret Scripture theologically, the first step will involve granting priority to theological concerns. This, however, is to anticipate my conclusion.

Looks to be a good book and good blog series. Keep your eyes on it.

One Comment

  1. Nathan Smith wrote:

    In this light it is interesting that “conservative” scholarship does not embrace a theological hermeneutic but instead uses the same modern critical methods to slightly different ends.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 12:03 am | Permalink

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