Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Rome and Constantinople!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Grand Rapids and Wheaton!
What do I care about the multitude of your Eucharists?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of your broken bread
and piously drunk wine;
I do not delight in your baptisms,
of children, or of adults.
When you come to worship before me,
who asked you to do this?
Stop making the gathering of my people a sham;
bringing eloquent homilies is futile; expository preaching is an abomination to me.
Your Sunday mornings and and your liturgical calendars—
I cannot endure your ecclesial practices when there is idolatry.
Your Christian year and your holy feast days
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Repent! Change how your are living;
get your idolatry out of my sight;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Category Archives: Theological Interpretation
From a provocative lecture by Oliver O’Donovan, that Byron helpfully points us to:
“No collective spiritual exercise, no sacrament, no act of praise or prayer is so primary to the catholic identity of the church gathered as the reading and recitation of Scripture. It is the nuclear core. When Paul instructed his letters to be passed from church to church and read, it was the badge of the local church’s catholic identity. This is not to devalue preaching, praise, prayer, let alone sacramental act; these all find their authorisation in reading. As we know from St Thomas Aquinas, the act of breaking bread and sharing wine is not a eucharist unless the narrative of the institution at the Last Supper is read.”
~ Oliver O’Donovan, The Reading Church: Scriptural Authority in Practice”
Quite a claim if you ask me. Indeed, quite a distinctly Protestant claim, at least in sentiment. What might it mean to consider the public reading of Scripture as the primary mark of catholicity? Food for thought.
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.
For those interested, there’s a new blog up–being done by the SBL section on Christian theology and the Bible. There should be some good content soon and all those interested in theolgical engagement with Scripture should find some good stuff to read soon.
In Romans 6:4 Paul states that “Christ was raised by the glory of the Father.” What would it mean to think a little more about what it means to say that Christ was raised by the Father’s glory? The context of the passage is centered on the theme of the superabundance of divine grace compared with sin (cf. 5:20). In keeping with this theme, the notion of Christ being resurrected by the Father’s glory seems to emphasize the superabundant luminosity of God. Christ descends into the fullness of death, but being the Son of the Father, he embodies the fullness of the divine presence in that very void, suffusing it with the inexhaustible life of God,the kabod of God.
The trinitarian logic that undergirds the Pauline claim here is one in which the glory of Trinity is understood as an inexhaustible plenitude of sheer life which cannot do other than invade the void that is death and transform it into utterly new life. God’s glory cannot do other than end in resurrection.
Throughout Romans 4 Paul draws comparisons between the faith of Abraham and the form of faith that Christians are called to in response to the faithfulness of Christ. What is Abrahamic faith for Paul? According to 4:20 it seems to entail at least two things.
First, the text notes that “No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God.” The phraseology is interesting here. It does not simply say that Abraham perfectly trusted God, rather it says that no distrust caused him to waver regarding his commitment to believing God’s promise. Thus, Abrahamic faith is characterized by ongoing commitment in the face of uncertainty.
Second the verse goes on to note that “he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.” Thus, Abrahamic faith is inherently doxological. Moreover, Abraham’s praxis of doxology is precisely what established and strengthened his trust in God’s promise.
Abrahamic faith is a nexus of commitment sustained through praise that persists in the absence of existential knowledge. This is, appropriately, an apt description of the faith of Jesus as well.
Another interesting point about 1 John. Unlike the Gospel of John, the epistle does not use “word of God” as a reference to Jesus, rather it is always a reference to the message of about Jesus that the congregation has heard “from the beginning.” However, the language of “word of God” in 1 John is clearly meant to evoke and reference the passages from the prologue of the Gospel that identify Jesus with the Word. What are we to make of this?
Judith Lieu makes a helpful observation, “In 1 John the ‘word of God’ is not a christological title; it is that which one keeps or has heard, just as it is the commandment (2:5-7); it is that which abides in believers (1:10; 2:14). If that which was from the beginning abides in them, then so will they abide in the Son and the Father (2:24). The strong ‘realised’ or present religious experience of 1 John is rooted in the believers’ fidelity to, and participation in, the tradition and life of the community.”
What is interesting here is that this Johannine notion of participation in God is actualized in one’s “abiding” in the narrative of Jesus. By remaining faithful to and grounded in the historical narrative of the Gospel believers come to inhabit the life of God. Thus, participation in God takes the form of faithfulness to and continuance in the story of Jesus. Union with God, in 1 John means participation in the history of Jesus.
Anymore I am just more and more convinced that there is one fundamental assertion that embodies the nature of biblical faith, hope, and action:
“The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:26)
This the axis upon which everything turns and in light of which everything makes sense. Any theology that tries to elide the fact that death is the last enemy is sentimental nonsense in my book. Death is the great enemy. It is the ancient dragon, the adversary of all things, the bane of all goodness. There is nothing meaningful or beautiful about death. Too many attempts are made in theology to establish a theological understanding of death as somehow good, a way to find in death some thing “natural” that can be embraced. Dying is just a part of living as the old platitude goes.
Any such sentiments or inclinations must needs be rejected in the strongest possible terms. There is only one way for death to be rendered good and that is for death to be destroyed. Death must be deathed. This is the good news and nothing less, that “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54).
And this is not to say that life after death is the nadir of the gospel. That is precisely not it. What is the nadir of the gospel is not life after death, but life. The infinitely excessive life of God which embraces, transfigures, and liberates all created things. Death is not simply the cessation of an organism, death is slavery, death is bondage. Life is freedom. The gospel of life is the gospel of freedom. The only freedom worth proclaiming is freedom from the powers of death. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. This is what’s real.
The word “abide” (Grk: meno) occurs 18 times in the first epistle of John. The only other New Testament book where it occurs more often is in the gospel of John in which it occurs 33 times. Consistently in the Johannine writings the idea conveyed in one of continuity, of continuing on, of remaining. In the first epistle of John one of the central ways that this term is deployed is in relation to the original proclamation of the gospel that the Johannine Christians have heard. Consistently reference is made to “that which you have heard from the beginning” (1 John 1:1; 2:7; 2:24; 3:11; 2 John 6). The fundamental admonition being that the readers should continue to remain faithful to the message of the gospel that they have had since it was first preached to them.
However, the theological twist on this lies in the Johannine concept of the relationship between continuing on in faithfulness to the gospel and living the koinonial life of the Father and Son. “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24). And similarly, “God abides in those who confess that Jesus in the son of God and they abide in God” (1 John 3:15).
So, in first John there is an intricate pattern of lingering indwelling, of ongoing abiding that characterizes the life of discipleship and faithfulness. In remaining faithful to the message of the gospel, we in fact are indwelt by and indwell the life of the Father and Son. First John can in fact be taken as an elaborate reiteration of the dynamics of divine grace. We are liberated into the very life of God in hearing and remaining bound to the Word which has been spoken to us, the gospel of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Thus, for the elder, we participate in the Trinitarian life of love itself insofar as we abide within the proclamation of the gospel, insofar as we indwell the story of Jesus.
One of the big debates to emerge from the torrent of blog discussions about Nate Kerr’s book, Christ, History and Apocalyptic is the issue of whether or not the church is rightly described as a polis, as Hauerwas (and sometimes Yoder) tends to describe it. This of course, is to ask the question of what we really mean by “polis” in the first place, and I don’t want to elide this issue. However, the first thing I want to do is actually look at some of the biblical language about the church and see what impression that leaves. Here are some of the passages that I found relevant to this question:
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (Matt 5:14)
“…he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” (John 11:52)
“For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Cor 3:9)
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16)
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Phil 3:20)
“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph 2:12-13)
“He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” (Eph 2:15)
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” (Eph 2:19-22)
“Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. ” (Titus 2:14)
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven…” (Heb 12:22-23)
“For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Heb 13:14)
“…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet 2:5)
“…but you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people…” (1 Pet 2:9-10)
“And I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev 21:2)
- Some of the terms used to explicitly describe the church here include: light of the world, field, building, temple, commonwealth, nation, people, race, priesthood, house, household, citizens, dwelling place, new humanity.
- The only verse that I’ve find that maybe specifically designates the church as a polis is Matthew 5:14, but that’s a bit thin. The mention of “city” there seems more by way of illustration of the church’s unhideability than of the church’s nature as a sort of civitas.
- All the passages that explicitly talk about God’s city, the holy city, or the new Jerusalem seem to refer to the eschatological polity of God that will be established on the last day.
- However, consistently the church’s present reality seems to be described as partaking of the heavenly city in the present in some sense (cf. Heb 12:22; Gal 4:26; Eph 2:12). The heavenly city, though ultimately future, is, in some partial sense present in the church’s present life.
So, in light of this, should we call the church a polis? Certainly not if by that we mean a stable political entity that is established and certain in its givenness. The church’s eschatological and provisional character forbids any strict identification of the church with any political entity that is determinate and given in its closure. “Here we have no lasting city.”
However, the biblical terminology of the church is utterly tangible, material, concrete, and communal. The church is a peoplehood and can be described in a number of political and familial terms with accuracy. As such, our emphasis on the chruch’s eschatological provisionality and non-closure should not eclipse the fact that the church is a visible communal reality in the world. Thus, if by “polis” we simply mean that the church’s political and social constitution is just as real and concrete as that of other social and political formations in the world, clearly the church is a polis in that sense. However, I’m not sure that its possible for us to purge the concept of territoriality from the language of polis, and what is clear from the New Testament language is that the church is distinctly non-territorial in nature, indeed its non-territoriality is the very shape of its “catholic” fullness.
In light of this I’m inclined to steer away from the language of “church as polis,” but not the language of church as political, social, communal, or peoplehood. This langauge seems far too central to the New Testament to be done away with. Indeed the diversity of the New Testament language seems to me to suggest that the church’s social reality–having its its genesis the the apocalyptic victory of Christ over the powers–cuts across so many lines of “sociality” that the diversity of social and communal images for the church are essential to our attempt at description.
In The Art of Reading Scripture, Ellen Davis and Richard Hays bring together a superb collection of scholars who offer some great essays on the theological interpretation of Scripture. The book is the result of the studies of a group known as “The Scripture Project” and includes nine theses on the interpretation of Scripture:
- Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world.
- Scripture is rightly understood in light of the church’s rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative.
- Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New.
- Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama.
- The four canonical Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus.
- Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action–the church.
- The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.
- Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.
- We live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God; consequently Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.
A few thoughts:
First, we need to be careful about what we mean by construing Scripture as a “coherent dramatic narrative” informed by the rule of faith. The rule of faith must not be understood as an unquestioned rule in our interpretation of Scripture if we are to avoid falling into ideology and theological imperialism.
Second, 3 and 8 seem to be in tension. If it is an article of faith that we cannot understand and the Old Testament apart from the New its going to be hard for us to read the Old Testament in dialogue with Jews.
Third, the meaning of “continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world” seems illusive. How exactly is this sort of discernment supposed to function hermeneutically?
Fourth, these theses would be better served by explicit mention of the God as Triune, and Jesus as the center of the biblical narrative in speaking about Scripture telling the story of “God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world.”
I’ve read and deeply enjoyed Walter Brueggemann’s works on the Old Testament for quite some time now. Brueggemann is nothing if not a rigorous and creative reader of biblical texts. Indeed, his early book, The Prophetic Imagination will always continue to be one of my favorite books. Central to Brueggemann’s whole attempt to read Scripture is his insistence that the text not be allowed to be domesticated, flattened out, or synthesized in a way that would blunt its cutting and decisive edge.
Now, this claim is clearly right and good and should be affirmed. However, one of my problems with the way this all plays out in Brueggemann relates to his skittishness to see anything other than cacophony in the Scriptures. He is so intent that in allowing the texts to “explode” and “linger” in all of their otherness that he never gets about the business of allowing various texts otherness to confront or inform one another. In short, by opting for a sort hermeneutic of disintegration, Brueggemann appears to be allowing texts to speak with their own voice, but this ultimately happens at the expense of the texts really ever entering into conversation with each other at all.
Brueggemann’s main hermeneutical goal often seems to be that of preserving rather than ironing out tensions, discontinuities, and disequilibration in our encounter with the biblical text. However, his overarching hermeneutic of disintegration actually has the opposite effect. In allowing the distinctness of texts to just sit there on their own, as discrete integers, his attempt to preserve the tensions in Scripture actually becomes a way of dissolving all tension by hermetically closing them off from one another in the name of avoiding a totalizing or flattening hermeneutic.
In other words, while to be sure it is wrong to simply try to harmonize the Bible in a facile manner, Bruggemann’s allegedly pluralistic approach does essentially the same thing. It allows the differences to stand, so long as we don’t try to actually struggle with the differences and attempt to bring them into conversation. As such, the truly daring, truly dangerous mode of engagement with the Bible is neither one that offers an integrative hermeneutic for everything, not a disintegrative hermeneutic that hermetically seals texts off from encountering one another for the sake of preserving their distinctness. A truly daring and dangerous hermeneutic is one that actually enters into the hard work of dealing with text as a whole, and yet does so in such a way that it does not assume, in advance the sort of whole that the Bible is and what that will mean for how we read and how we live.
Ever since I first encountered biblical studies I’ve been immersed in discussions about whether or not a “canonical” approach to the Bible is to be preferred over some other sort of approach. One of the difficulties with this discussion relates to a lack of clarity about what such an approach might be. Canonical approaches range from the simple assertion that Scripture should be read a whole, for the church to methodological statements about how the actual literary shape of the canon functions to shape a particular theological reading of Scripture. Therein lies some of the numinousness that surround issues of how we determine methods of theological interpretation.
My one thought at this point, as an apreciator of methods that tend to go under the label “canonical” is that if a canonical approach is understood as positing the shape of the Christian canon as a sort of regulating principle that constitutes a stable universe of coherence and meaning, then I’m not sure it works. I’m wary of such and overdetermined approach to the biblical text in that such macro-level sytheses seem to inevitably require the flattening out of dissonances within the scriptural canon.
Brueggemann makes reference to this in his critique of Childs in his recent book, A Pathway of Interpretation in which he tries to distinguish his own approach from the “canonical” and the “critical”, styling himself as lying somewhere between them, attempting to allow discordant texts to seriously confront the reader in their otherness and intrusiveness (contra the critical) without positing an overarching closure to the message of the Scripture as a whole which determine our readings of particular texts (the canonical). I don’t know if Bruegemann’s critique of Childs really has the traction he thinks it does, and I think the problem with Brueggemann’s position is that he seems to only want to find discordant voices all over the place, having an over-developed suspicion of any genuine unity to the canon. But there still remains the problem of positing the shape of the canon as a sort of ordering principle which predetermines proper readings of scriptural texts. There seems to be just as much an ideological danger in such an approach as that as in old-style historical criticism. I can’t say for sure if this is really a problem with Childs’ canonical approach, but I do see this danger in many of the thinkers that have received and self-applied the label of canonical methodology. Maybe others can shed more light or thought on this.
1. Theological commentary is a practice of commenting on Scripture. It is not an attempt to excavate the determinate meaning of the text, or make definitive statements about the text as such.
2. Theological commentary is theological. It is a practice of reading and interacting with Scripture from a distinctly Christian perspective that is fundamentally informed by Christian commitments to the triune God and the centrality of Jesus Christ.
3. Theological commentary is part of the church’s missional task. Commenting on Scripture is a way of holding Scripture “open” before oneself and the church as a whole, calling us into the story told therein. It is a way of situating ourselves within the story of God’s own trinitarian drama of salvation. As such theological commentary is a practice of attempting to find our place within God’s missional calling on his people.
4. Theological commentary is a discipline, the aim of which is to facilitate our own sanctification and transformation. There are many aims and ends of commenting on Scripture, but the immediate aim of theological commentary is to encounter the Word of God in the text of Scripture and in that encounter to be caught up more deeply into the communio that is the triune life of God.
5. Theological commentary is ecclesial in shape and practice. Commenting on Scripture theologically means doing so within the context of the church’s interpretive tradition and history. It likewise means doing so within the immediate communal setting of the local church which serves as the primary locus of testing and exploring claims and questions about Scripture.
6. Theological commentary is an offering to the church for consideration, dissection, correction, and edification. It is to be done in the mode of gifting, not in the mode of confrontation. Unlike the role of the preacher who is called to confront the church with the Word of God, theological commentary is a humble attempt to engage with the Word of God, not knowing how such engagement will turn out. It is prior to and grounds the practice of proclamation.
7. Theological commentary is not done rightly unless done in the context of doxology and prayer. The end of theological commentary is an ever-deepening union with the triune God through Christ. Such communion only occurs through being drawn, by the Spirit of Christ, into God’s life through the posture of worship.
8. Theological commentary is never finished in any sense whatsoever. In that Scripture participates in God’s economy of revelation and reconciliation, there is a plenitude to Scripture that precludes ever having come to the end of meditating on any and all of it. The depth of riches contained in Scripture can never be exhausted thought theological commentary or any other form of exegetical engagement with Scripture. Rather the Scriptures are penultimately inexhaustible, a place of living and dwelling that will never be fully explored prior to the consummation of all things in God.