Thoughts on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture


My most recent PhD seminar was called Biblical Theology and Theological Hermeneutics. The seminar focused on the “theological interpretation of Scripture” (hereafter TIS), an influential but difficult-to-define movement in contemporary biblical hermeneutics. I really enjoyed taking a quarter to step out of my normal fields of historical/systematic theology and enter into a conversation being had within the field of biblical theology. Its served for me as a kind of crash course on the current state of biblical studies in Western academia, and especially the current division between Bible and theology—between “what it meant” verses “what it means” (as Krister Stendahl put it). This division began with J.P. Gabler’s conceptual distinction between biblical theology and dogmatic theology back in the late 18th century, and has developed alongside the rise of historical criticism of the Bible (hereafter HC) to produce an “iron curtain” between the Bible and theology (Brevard Childs’ term). The result is that biblical studies has been seen to be a purely descriptive enterprise, and there has been a far disproportionate emphasis on reconstruction of the supposed background circumstances behind biblical texts.

What is Theological Interpretation of Scripture?

At its core, TIS is a reaction against this separation of Bible and theology in the field of biblical studies. But its difficult to define precisely, partly because different people use the term in different ways and the movement has no official boundaries, and also partly because (in my opinion) its project has some fundamental ambiguities. I would say, broadly, TIS represents a disparate group of hermeneutical commitments and leanings, all of which are seeking to overcome this division of Bible and theology without simply going back to premodern forms of exegesis as if HC had never occurred. In the context of my review of one book advocating TIS, I sketched out some of the main emphases I see in the movement:

  1. Reading Scripture must take place in community, particularly in an ecclesial setting.
  2. Reading Scripture is influenced by the character of the reader(s).
  3. Reading Scripture can be enriched from a more balanced, appreciative appropriation of premodern forms of exegesis (especially patristic exegesis, and the early creeds).
  4. Reading Scripture requires giving more than lip-service to the role of the Spirit in interpretation.
  5. Reading Scripture should focus more on the final form of the text than any pre-history behind the text.

I am sure that TIS has done much good, and on paper, I am very sympathetic to its emphases (both these 5 and others that I see in it). But in actual practice, I’m not convinced it really advances beyond the classical evangelical approach to biblical interpretation I’ve grown up seeing and trying to do. Here I list a few of my concerns or questions about TIS, as well as a few points of appreciation and personal growth from studying it. My concerns are tentative because I’m still learning about TIS, and my points of appreciation are sometimes more about my experience in this particular seminar than TIS per se.

Reflections on Theological Interpretation of Scripture

1) My greatest question about TIS is how it relates to other traditional and conservative models of biblical interpretation that have also eschewed the divorce of Bible and theology engendered by HC. TIS proponents want to dialogue with pre-modern patterns of exegesis, but what about post-Enlightenment conservative patterns of exegesis? Are there any points of continuity between TIS and, say, conservative German biblical scholars (like Adolf Schlatter), conservative Dutch neo-Calvinist scholars (like Herman Ridderbos), biblical scholars at Old Princeton (like Geerhardus Vos), or 20th century conservative evangelical biblical scholars (like D.A. Carson)? TIS advocates seem, for the most part, to be curiously silent about how their movement relates to other efforts of holding Bible and theology together, and therefore its not easy to see what makes it unique. In my reading the TIS literature, I frequently wonder, how is TIS different from what the majority of Christians have always been doing, especially less unaffected by HC (e.g., those in the global South)?

2) Related to this, I have often wondered if there is a “hipness” or “trendiness” factor in the popularity of TIS. Theology, after all, has its own trends and fads, like any other sphere of life. (Maybe this is why TIS advocates rarely dialogue with conservatives?) But I want to be careful with this judgment, because I obviously don’t know for sure how much that is true, and even where it may be, I’m sure its not equally a factor for all of those involved in the movement. So I move on.

3) I wonder if TIS could be be of greater service by producing less literature that talks about hermeneutics at the theoretical level, and more literature that puts it into practice at the popular level. There is so much talk about being for the church, for instance, or communal, Spirit-led reading; but so much of the material making this appeal still feels (to me, anyway) pretty academic and theoretical. This could also lead to some clarification of where TIS advocates actually come down on specific doctrinal or moral issues. Sometimes TIS advocates put so much emphasis on cultural translation that it seems like they leave too much wiggle room in biblical application, especially on contested or controversial issues. Will the TIS movement produce ways of reading the Bible that sufficiently challenge the danger of cultural accommodation? It looks to me like the jury is still out.

When TIS advocates actually do exegesis rather than talk hermeneutics (for instance, new commentary series specifically devoted to TIS), I sometimes worry that they move too quickly into theology, devoting too little time to technical issues of exegesis (e.g., word studies), and exhibiting too little interest historical background matters that may genuinely illumine the text. For the course I read briefly through one TIS commentary, and while it had many fine qualities that made it a useful book, it really didn’t feel like a commentary. It did not contain anything like verse-by-verse exegesis or running exposition. Instead, it seemed to hover above the text, swooping down to highlight themes that interested the author while leaving others unexplored. While a degree of selectivity is necessary in all commentaries, in this case the interests were so narrowly focused that, in my mind, it felt like there was a lack of the earnest exegetical labor that results from a submission to the objectivity of the text. To what extent that is representative of other TIS commentaries, however, I can’t say.

4) One of the important and recurring issues in the seminar is how TIS should relate to HC. Some of the proponents of TIS seem to basically proceed as though the way out of the contemporary barrenness of exegeses produced by HC is to simply reassert a divine role in history and biblical interpretation. In other words, we can keep HC, but we just need to add God to the process. The more thoughtful proponents of TIS avoid this—for example, Joel Green’s 2010 article in The Journal of Theological Interpretation distinguishes carefully between what TIS can learn from HC and what of HC must be jettisoned (and it turns out he thinks the basic agenda of the cutting edge of HC needs to be completely rejected). Nevertheless, some (especially those more in a Barthian vein) seem to simply want HC + God.

In my opinion, this is weird and problematic, since God was the very thing HC assumed could not be factored in. Take, for instance, the potential for prophetic prediction. Mainstream HC guys (William Wrede, Heikki Räisänen, John Collins, etc.) have no place for prophetic prediction, because one cannot assume a God outside of history to speak into it. This had a profound impact on the interpretation of portions of Scripture such as, say, Daniel, or the Olivet Discourse. If you want to interpret such portions of Scripture on the basis of the assumption that future prediction is possible, you will arrive at a drastically different interpretation than that of HC. You might end up dating the book much earlier, for example.

In fact, along traditional assumptions of HC, any divine involvement in history is excluded, because history is a closed box of cause and effect, in the way articulated by Troelstch. Its hard to overstate how drastically that philosophy of history revolutionized the nature of biblical study. Whole new disciplines were developed, the already-existing ways of reading Scripture were redrawn and reinterpreted, conclusions almost universally assumed throughout the entirety of biblical interpretation were undermined, and the fundamental understanding of what the Bible is and what it means to read it was drastically recast. To simply add God into this process is like amputating a leg and then trying to walk on normally. The task of responding of HC is must therefore be more radical. Its not simply building a new wall or replacing the moat: its tearing down the castle to its foundations and starting anew.

5) At the same time, I don’t think its the case that there is nothing to learn from HC, and some TIS advocates helpfully explore this point. I remember one class discussion organized around the question, “how would biblical exegesis be different if HC had never happened?” Mark 16:9-20 came up, and I realized, insofar as various forms of textual criticism are used properly, they not only help us read the Bible, they help us determine what the Bible actually is (i.e., which parts are original and which parts are spurious).

More generally, I do think HC has yielded some accurate knowledge about various redactional processes associated with Scripture. I am conservative on such issues. For example, I believe in Pauline authorship of all 13 epistles traditionally ascribed to him. I believe Peter wrote II Peter—I can’t imagine even a very close disciple to Peter would claim to be an eyewitness of the transfiguration, or would write “this is now my second letter to you.” And the arguments against traditional authorship views often strike me as requiring an unrealistic amount of similarity for documents to have the same author—on their basis, I bet one could make a very compelling case that C.S. Lewis could not have written both Perelandra and Mere Christianity. However, on a question like whether Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, or how much of Proverbs exactly he wrote, I am simply uncertain. I am not knowledgeable enough to have an opinion. But I don’t think it would cause me any problems with respect to my doctrine of Scripture if it turned out that Solomon didn’t write Ecclesiastes, or that Proverbs had a more or less thorough redaction process that resulted in it. In some places, I think the Bible itself invites us to consider where redaction might have occurred (for example, I seriously doubt that Moses wrote Numbers 12:3).

One of the greatest insights I take away from the seminar is that redactional processes and canonization can be theologically rather than politically motivated. In other words, we need not assume that the concerns evident in transmission processes run counter to the concerns present in the biblical texts themselves. From the way Bart Ehrman or Dan Brown talk, you tend to think of redaction processes as a hostile “take over.” But I think part of what it means to be a Christian is to trust that the Spirit who inspired the biblical texts was also at work in the church’s reception of those texts; and the Spirit who spoke in the generations of prophets and apostles did not radically withdraw in generations of tradition and remembrance and codification and development. Therefore the Christian’s attitude toward the church’s work in redacting and canonizing texts can be fundamentally trustworthy rather than fundamentally suspicious (without thinking of the church’s work as infallible).

6) In this regard, I have appreciated TIS’ pressing me to think more clearly about the regula fidei, as well as the role of the early ecumenical creeds in the church’s reading of Scripture. The regula fidei is a concept that denotes the early church’s summary of the faith as received by virtually all Christians everywhere, sometimes summarized as roughly tantamount the apostles creed. It was used in catechetical instruction, theological dispute, and the process of canonization. Because TIS places so much emphasis on the creeds and the regula fidei, its been interesting to learn more about them. I was especially interested to consider my professors’ characterization of the three earliest and most truly ecumenical creeds as each favored by one of the three branches of Christendom: Apostles (Protestantism); Nicene (Roman Catholicism); Athanasian (Eastern Orthdoxy). I had not heard of that before, but it makes sense, given the theological emphases of each tradition.

We read Robert Jenson’s book Canon and Creed and I really grappled with his argumentation that canon and creed have a mutually dependent relationship. I appreciate the emphasis on the importance of creed, but I would want to sketch the relationship a little differently. I would say that there are certain ways in which canon and creed depend on each other, but other ways in which they have a more asymmetrical relationship. I think its good to recognize the value and authority of the early creeds, but ultimately I would say the authority they have—even in aiding the interpretation of Scripture—is itself derived from Scripture. Also, while I appreciate the emphasis on the early creeds and patristic thought in TIS, I think our doctrine of Scripture also needs to draw from other periods of church history, such as the Reformation. From my theological vantage point, the Holy Spirit who was at work in the early church’s fight against (for instance) Arius was also at work in the 16th century in the fight for the biblical doctrine of justification. I wonder if drawing from both of these periods would bring clarity to the Roman Catholic and Protestant dialogue among TIS advocates.

7) One of the books we read (Christopher Seitz’ The Character of Christian Scripture) really helped me with the problem of circularity in the development of the canon, an issue I’ve always wrestled with. The problem is that one of the criteria for canon inclusion by the early church was doctrinal fidelity, and yet the canon itself is supposed to be the criterion for doctrinal fidelity. Seitz argued that circularity is not vicious because the regula fidei was itself rooted in the authoritative revelation of God in Christ, captured by the kerygma, as the fulfillment and hence extension of the authority of the Old Testament. Because the church’s canonical decisions were themselves rooted in the Old Testament, they had a divine authority animating and guiding them.

I’m very grateful to have taken this seminar. Even where I differ from the tendencies of TIS, its been personally helpful to work through some of the issues. Above all, I take away a phrase from a book about Karl Barth we read about the priority of exegesis over hermeneutics. The most important thing is not how we talk about the Bible, but what we do with it. With that emphasis in TIS, I deeply resonate.

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  1. Gav, I had exactly the same response when I did a doctoral seminar on TIS a few years back. But you articulated things better than I ever could.

  2. I attended seminary for an M.Div. degree in the 1980s, and during my studies many of the questions you raised or alluded to were constantly on my mind at that time. This was before the advent of the biblical theology and TIS movements. A lot of my thoughts at the time were along the very same lines that seem to be taken by the biblical theology and TIS movements today. So I am gratified to know that movements have arisen to address these very valid concerns, and also that my own thoughts were in keeping with them. It’s always nice to know one is not as alone in one’s thoughts as one might be tempted to believe.

  3. Hi Gavin,

    I just ran across your post and very much enjoyed it, thanks! I am currently working towards a PhD at Baylor U in Theology and my research area is theological interpretation and philosophical hermeneutics. I received my MA in Old Testament, so a number of your concerns hit home with me as I am interested in taking both theological reading and the critical tools provided through HC seriously. You can find my specific thoughts on this issue here:

    Also, one thing that I am unsure if you know about is the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. It is a commentary series that exemplifies TIS at work. I like them for the precise reason that you concern in your post, it is key to see how a theological interpreter ACTUALLY approaches the text. I personally am a big fan of Ephraim Radner’s commentary on Leviticus.

    What I think is crucial in a conversation of TIS is too recognize that it is precisely NOT trendy. That is, biblical studies and theology for the majority of the history of Christianity were NOT two separate disciplines and that it is only in the last few hundred years that such a sharp distinction has been present. I think it is important to wonder what has been lost in that divide and what might be gained in an attempt to bring the two disciplines back together.