Tag Archives: Theological Interpretation

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 6:1 – 7:2

Read 1 Samuel 6:1 – 7:2

The ark has wreaked havoc in Philistia, or so it seems, and the leaders want rid of it. They seek the counsel of the priests and diviners, who suggest returning it with a “guilt offering” so that healing might come to the people. On the one hand, they assume that the trouble that has befallen them is the direct action of Israel’s God. On the other, however, a question remains whether this is in fact the case, or whether they have had a particularly bad run of luck (v. 9). Nonetheless, their counsel assumes that the root of their problems is God.

The guilt offering suggested was five golden mice and five golden tumours—corresponding, probably, to their afflictions, and presumably, to their cause. By sending these tokens with the ark they acknowledged that this plague had come from God, and by sending them out of the country, they also are symbolically sending the plague away. Although it is easy to view the Philistines as deeply superstitious, such a characterisation is less than fair. Indeed, the text itself indicates that the Philistines are aware of what happened to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and take it as a warning (v. 6).

The priests and diviners do not make it easy on themselves. They insist on a new cart with cattle that have never been yoked. They choose milk cows with calves, but take the calves away from the cows. The cows are left free to go where they will, yet they do not return back to their calves, but go straight toward the land of Israel; the plagues have not been a coincidence.

The people of Beth-shemesh rejoice to see the ark and offer appropriate—and costly—sacrifices. But, and here the story takes an interesting twist, some of the people look into the ark and are struck dead. (One wonders what Calvin would make of those who seek to “peer into the depths of God.” Calvin repudiated such speculative attempts to apprehend the essence of God, and insisted that we content ourselves with that which God has revealed.) Again there is a difficulty in the Hebrew which suggests that perhaps 50,070 people were killed, but the structure of verse nineteen is difficult, and most translations and commentators opt for the more “reasonable” number of seventy. Nevertheless, this cost is too great for the people of Beth-shemesh and they send it away to Kiriath-jearim where it remains for some twenty years.

In chapters four and five we found that God had judged his people and allowed them to be decisively defeated. God has also allowed himself to be “captured,” to be taken into the hands and control of the pagans, to be exiled and cut off from his people. And yet God is not captured, not exiled, not defeated, and not controlled. God remains Lord even in “defeat.” God bears witness to himself where Israel has failed to do so, and so wins the acknowledgement and grudging respect, if not the love, of the Philistines. God has now returned from his exile, returned to his people, but God will not be their captive or their possession either. The people of Beth-shemesh have transgressed the boundary, presumed upon the divine majesty, and failed to consider his holiness. They have not, as the early Barth insisted in his first Romans commentary, “respected the distance.”

It is likely, as Murphy notes (48), that no one really understands the disasters in 1 Samuel 5-6, for the passage lies beyond our historical ability. This does not mean, however, that we can gain no instruction or benefit from it. The ark is the symbol—and sacrament—of the divine presence. Indeed Murphy declares that “it is not possible to understand this carnival of the glory of the Lord in his ark without appreciating sacramental power” (49). The ark is an earthly tangible thing, but simultaneously the divine throne by which God is present with and enthroned amongst his people. Its potency is “a visible symbol” of the glory that it bears (ibid.). As the divine throne it is also sacred, and to be acknowledged, honoured and treated as such. Evans (50) wonders whether Paul might have had a passage like this in mind when he warned against misuse of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.

Within the overall structure of the narrative, another insight dawns. The ark is now housed at Kiriath-jearim for twenty years—a back-water, out-of-the-way kind of place—side-lined, and marginal to the life of Israel, until David retrieves it and brings it to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. This is a figurative portrayal of the sidelining of God in the national life; the divine kingship is marginal until David is established as king and the ark restored to Jerusalem (see Murphy, 51). If this interpretation is accepted, it provides a lens through which the rest of the book is to be understood, and in particular, the reign of Saul.

One further point of instruction may be possible. It may be appropriate to read this text typologically or allegorically, as pointing to Jesus Christ, who is in his own flesh, the presence and covenant of God with us. He, too, was captured, taken into the hands and control of the pagans, cut off from his people, exiled from God and nation—yet not captured, defeated, exiled or controlled, but victorious. But this text would also warn us that we either have Jesus on his own terms or not at all. He is never our possession, but the holy God who has come to us in mercy, and the merciful God who nevertheless ever remains the holy One who is Lord.

A Sermon on Sunday

IWOK_widescreenToday I am speaking at Lesmurdie Baptist Church—my old stomping ground… The church and congregation hold a special place in my life; I was pastor of the church for five years, and an ordinary member for another two years, and in that time grew to love the people and the pastoral team with whom I worked. It is always a privilege and a joy to return. My topic for today is: “If We Only Knew: From Academia to Application.” My brief is to bring something from the world of academia which might otherwise take years to filter down into congregational awareness and life. I love the fact that senior minister, Karen Siggins, wants her congregation to be informed concerning important developments and trends in contemporary theology: may her tribe increase! She and the pastoral team have devoted the whole month to this series.

I have chosen as my theme a topic completely out of my comfort zone: the relation between science and theology, and exploring the particular issue presently experiencing vigorous debate in Evangelical theology—the historicity or otherwise of Adam. Here is the outline…

*****

My own awareness of these issues has been stimulated by a BBC production The Incredible Human Journey and by the work of the Human Genome project. I recognised almost immediately that both these scientific projects would issue a great challenge to Evangelical Christianity. I was right. In the next few years a debate arose in evangelicalism around the historicity of Adam and Eve: did Adam and Eve really exist? Two books from evangelical biblical scholars spotlight the issue: C. J. Collins’ Did Adam and Eve Really Exist and Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam. As you can guess, the two books took opposing positions with respect to this question.

Of course, serious theological questions arise around this issue: not least the issues raised by common interpretation of Romans 5:12-21.

Lost WorldHuman Origins: How did we come to be here?
In the modern era many answer that question with the word evolution. Some Christians accept evolution as fact. Others reject it out of hand, and insist on a literal six-day creation by divine fiat. Still others adopt a position of theistic evolution. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, is not comfortable with the term theistic evolution and prefers simply to speak of evolution by itself. Yet, as a committed Christian, Collins believes that God being almighty and all-knowing pre-loaded the evolutionary process so that it would result in his intended purpose.

Science and Faith: Must the relation be conflictual?
This issue raises the perennial question of the relation between science and faith. On the one hand, in the modern west science has achieved a kind of cultural status as the arbiter and final authority of truth and wisdom. That which is not ‘scientific’ is intellectually and possibly, morally, suspect. Yet Christians—and not only Christians—claim that there are other sources of truth and wisdom, the Bible in particular. How, then, are Christians to respond when it seems that science and faith come into conflict?

The response of liberal theology to that question was simply to re-interpret or even jettison those parts of the Bible which conflicted with scientific discoveries; they gave science the priority. Other Christians adopted a defensive posture, ignoring or attacking the science, or else developing their own supposedly ‘scientific’ programmes to insist that the Bible teaches precise and actual scientific knowledge, with the result that ‘true science’ agrees with the Bible. If it does not agree with the Bible it is not ‘true’ science.

A major part of the issue, however, concerns the question of biblical interpretation. Sometimes Christians fail to recognise that what we think is the teaching of the Bible is in fact our interpretation of the Bible, and the reality that the Bible can be and is interpreted in different ways by believers who are equally committed to a high-view of Scripture. And so the question comes to us: Can we be open to new ways of interpreting familiar
passages? And can we look for ways of interpretation that maximise the possibility of finding common ground between science and faith without compromising what we consider to be essential theological convictions? Note, here, Augustine’s wisdom:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it (cited in Collins, “The Language of God,” in Metaxas, Socrates in the City, 317).

Two Interpretive Moves
I want to suggest two interpretative moves that will assist us as we think about this particular issue. First, Millard Erickson’s view of progressive creationism. Erickson argues that God uses both the processive mechanism of micro-evolution—evolution within a particular species, and de novo creative events. There may well have been ‘pre-human’ creatures prior to the creation of Adam and Eve, but Adam and Eve were a fresh creative work of God (Erickson, Christian Theology 3rd ed., 446).

I note also, that Francis Collins, despite his insistence that God pre-loaded the evolutionary mechanism, also speaks of God ‘gifting’ humanity with ‘the knowledge of good and evil (that’s the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul. And Homo sapiens became Homo divinus’ (Collins, in Metaxas, 315). This sounds very much like a direct intervention to me.

The second interpretative move involves ‘re-thinking’ of Genesis 1:31: must God’s ‘very Time Cover God vs Sciencegood’ be understood in terms of some kind of metaphysical perfection, or might it be understood in terms of the value God the Creator places upon his work? English theologian Colin Gunton suggested that, “Rather like a work of art, creation is a project, something God wills for its own sake and not because he has need of it” (Colin E. Gunton, “The Doctrine of Creation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 142). Such an interpretation suggests that God’s work of creation was not the end of his purpose, but the beginning of a project playing out across history and moving toward a divine purpose and climax. In this view, the immanent God accompanies his creation, at times doing new things, providentially guiding the creation toward his appointed goals.

These two interpretive moves may help us find a place of common ground between contemporary science and biblical faith. The fact that we share 96%+ of our DNA with chimpanzees, the fossil record of pre-modern humanoids creatures, the idea that the complexity of the human genome requires a beginning population of not two but many thousands—all these and more may be addressed within this interpretive framework. Nor does this require the story of Adam & Eve to be a fictional story. Christians may still argue that God ‘instilled’ this distinctively human nature and spirit into an original couple so they were not simply pre-modern humanoids but ‘new creatures.’

But what about death? Does not this interpretation undermine the biblical teaching that sin entered the world through one man and death through sin? Not necessarily. It may be permissible to interpret death strictly as spiritual death, both in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 5:12. Adam & Eve died when they ate the fruit—but not physically. Prior to this special creation physical death was in the world but not spiritual death for God had not created the earlier creatures as spiritual beings in the same way as modern humans have been created.

Further benefits of ‘re-thinking’ our interpretation of Scripture include a greater awareness of our natural solidarity with other creatures, especially the animal kingdom, and so of our responsibility for their care. If God’s creation is God’s project, and God has created us in the divine image, it speaks to God’s intent that we participate in this project, that we ‘play’ and ‘paint’ with him, as it were, actively taking our place and playing our part in building the kind of world that God always intended, aiming always at the festivity and shalom of the Sabbath rest which is the climax of the first creation narrative.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 16 (Part 2)

The Path of LifeLast week we studied the first six verses of this psalm and found a single-minded, whole-hearted declaration of allegiance to the Lord. The psalmist looks to God himself as his inheritance, rather than to God’s blessings and gifts. And yet, the Lord does give blessings as well as his own presence; the second part of the psalm enumerates these many blessings that the faithful might experience. For the psalmist, these blessings include counsel and guidance, defence, security, and deliverance. Nevertheless, to have the Lord is to have all there is, every blessing and more besides.

David blesses the Lord “who has counselled me.” If we recall that this psalm was probably composed in the midst of desperate circumstances, we might assume that this divine counsel specifically addressed David’s present need. That may be the case. But it is also true that God’s general counsel provides the foundation for his wisdom in specific circumstances. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), and unless one is instructed first in this initial wisdom which learns to view the world from a theocentric centre, it may be that they cannot discern the specific direction required in particular circumstances. David’s allegiance to Yahweh, and his whole-hearted trust in him, provides the framework within which he receives the divine counsel.

It is also of interest to note the manner in which this counsel came: “Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night” (NASB). The counsel did not arrive in some spectacular manner such as via an angel or a vision, but by means of his own thought processes as David prayerfully pondered his circumstances. God can and sometimes may use more spectacular means to convey his wisdom and will, but it is good for us to be reminded that more often, it seems that God uses very ordinary channels to accomplish his purposes. Of course there remains the twin requirements of learning to distinguish the divine counsel from the counsel of our own hearts, and of learning to test and confirm this guidance by means of the other gifts of grace God has given us in Scripture and the community of his people.

The final verses of the psalm are a celebration of confidence in God, again, in the midst of the most desperate circumstances. Craigie (153) titled his exposition on this psalm, “Confidence in the Face of Death.” Convinced that Yahweh is his only good, and thus his only hope, the psalmist sets the Lord continually before him, giving his attention to the Lord, placing his hope and confidence in him. More comforting still is the thought that the Lord himself is at his own right hand: even in dire straits he will not be shaken (cf. 15:5). Therefore, the psalmist rests in God, his whole being rejoicing in God’s presence, power and promise—heart, soul and even flesh.

Craigie reads these final verses as applying directly to the psalmists own immediate circumstances:

With respect to the initial meaning of the psalm, it is probable that this concluding section should not be interpreted either messianically or in terms of individual eschatology; … The acute concern of the psalmist was an immediate crisis and an immediate deliverance. His body had been endangered and his life threatened with untimely termination in Sheol. … The psalmist acknowledges that God makes him know, or experience, the “path of life,” not the afterlife, but the fullness of life here and now which is enriched by the rejoicing which emerges from an awareness of the divine presence (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 158).

In this interpretation, verse ten is simply the psalmist’s assurance that his present circumstances will not result in his death, while the eleventh verse portrays the ongoing life that God gives as one of joy and satisfaction. This joy is grounded both in who God is and what God gives: the joys of his face (“presence”) and the joys of his right hand (“in your right hand”; see Kidner, 86).

Craigie’s conclusion helps make sense of the psalm in its original context, with the added benefit of instructing our hearts in the ways of faith, especially when ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ loom large. The path of life issues from a steadfast allegiance to God in faith, a recognition that only in him is our good to be found; seeking our good and deliverance elsewhere is to embark on a different path where hope is vain and sorrows multiply.

Nevertheless, from the earliest days of the Christian church this psalm has been read messianically. In his great Pentecost sermon, the apostle Peter argues that David indeed died and was buried. But David spoke as a prophet of the resurrection, for it was Christ who was neither abandoned to hell and whose flesh did not suffer decay in the grave (Acts 2:25-31). And so from the earliest days of the Christian church this psalm has also been read in terms of individual eschatology: the “path of life” transcends the bounds of this world and its hopes, extending beyond the grave to the life to come, evermore in the presence of God and the fullness of joy.

The Christian reception of Ps. 16 illustrates a reading strategy that quite transforms the original pedagogy. The general counsel for a morally flourishing and satisfying life with God morphs into a uniquely Christian vision of adhering to the risen Lord … Christianity is born by wrestling with ancient texts in light of startling events that require textual grounding in order to be theologically warranted. The Christian reading of David’s psalm is a fresh instruction for people in a quite different context than the one the psalmist originally attributed to David. But the underlying hope is the same (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 76).

Migliore on Same-Sex Relationships

Three FriendsIn his chapter on the doctrine of humanity, Migliore includes the following paragraph:

Barth’s second assertion must also be carefully qualified to avoid the implication that unmarried persons are any less called to a life in relationship with others than are those who marry, or that abiding friendships and committed partnerships of persons of the same sex may not also reflect in their own way the divine intention that human life is to be lived with and for others. As Paul Lehmann has contended, while Scripture unquestionably sees the relationship of man and woman as a paradigmatic and foundational instance of life in reciprocal love and fidelity, of commitment to life together with full respect for otherness and difference, this is not to be understood as a limiting or exclusive instance. A reading of Scripture governed by the centrality of God’s steadfast covenantal love and the call to new life in community with God and others will not be constrictive in scope but open to a multiplicity of signs or parables of life in depth of fellowship made possible by God’s grace (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 3rd ed, 150; original emphasis).

Here, Migliore cautiously opens the door to same-sex relationships and more precisely, same-sex marriage, as a parable of God’s intent for life-in-relation, though he also admits that such relationships are not in accordance with the foundational creational paradigm, and they must also pattern covenantal fidelity.

At one level, of course, same-sex relationships as examples of life-in-relation may certainly reflect God’s creational intent for humanity; all manner of friendships and partnerships may demonstrate the kind of love, kindness, compassion, mutuality and inclusivity that God intends for his human creation. Whether, however, this life of depth-in-fellowship made possible by divine grace includes same-sex sexual relationships is an entirely different question and the blurring of these lines should not taken lightly. Here, it seems to me, it is precisely the sexual differentiation between male and female—and not simply the personal differentiation between partners—that is crucial. It is the fruitful union of male and female resulting in children in the divine image that is “foundational” and “paradigmatic” of God’s intention, not only as a sign of covenantal life in fidelity and relationship, but more deeply, of the oneness and unity that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, between Christ and his church, between Christ and the believer.

That not every heterosexual coupling is fruitful in actually producing a child does not set this fundamental creational reality aside, but rather underlines the reality that it is this kind of differentiated-in-unity sexual relationship that functions as a sign of God’s covenantal fidelity.

Fishing buddiesIt is worth noting, finally, that it is Migliore’s hermeneutical lens—the “centrality of God’s steadfast covenantal love and the call to new life in community”—that allows him to make this reading. Also at work is his earlier dictum that “a major task of theology today is to recover a liberative understanding of the authority of Scripture” (46). Together, these hermeneutical moves allow Migliore to set aside a consistent biblical witness against homosexual sex in the name of what he considers a more central theological ideal.

This highlights a crucial issue with respect to theological interpretation of Scripture—whether and to what extent we may use a theological lens derived from scripture to set aside particular biblical texts. That everyday Christians and academic theologians do this regularly is unquestioned. For example, most Christians set aside strict observance of the Sabbath and other aspects of Mosaic law on the basis of a theological account of the significance of Jesus. But is such a procedure always legitimate? Specifically, is Migliore’s contention in this paragraph legitimate?  Given the unequivocal nature of both the Old and New Testaments with respect to this matter, Migliore’s judgement (following Lehmann) that the “unquestioned” biblical paradigm and foundation is not to be understood as “limiting” or “exclusive” is unwarranted.

If my account of how the Scriptures are to be read with respect to this matter is accurate, this leaves the church in a much more difficult cultural space when seeking to maintain what it considers faithful witness to the gospel, while extending generous and authentic welcome and acceptance to gay people. This will become even more difficult and complex should anticipated legal changes in this country with respect to gay marriage go ahead.

Preaching the Atonement: Learning from John Donne

John DonneWilt thou love God, as he thee? then digest,
My Soul, this wholesome meditation.
How God the Spirit, by Angels waited on
In heaven, doth make his Temple in thy breast.
the Father having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting, (for he ne’r begonne)
Hath deign’d to choose thee by adoption,
Coheir to his glory, and Sabbath’s endless rest;
And, as a robbed man, which by search doth find
His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again:
the Son of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom he had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.
’Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.

In last week’s class we were discussing theories of atonement and finished by looking at this classic sonnet (taken from McGrath’s The Christian Theology Reader 3rd edition, 368). After an extended discussion around patristic and medieval approaches, this was refreshing. Colin Gunton complains that Gregory of Nyssa moved from metaphor to mythology by treating the biblical idea of ransom in terms of speculation, God deceiving the devil, capturing him on the hook of Christ’s divinity hidden beneath his humanity (The Actuality of Atonement, 63).

Anselm’s satisfaction theory may well have been a very relevant explanation of the atonement in a feudal context, but it still loses something essential in terms of the gospel. Anselm’s feudal god is too aloof, too touchy, too offended, too demanding. It is true we have profaned God’s honour, but the gospel shows God taking that shame upon himself in order to restore fellowship with his people.

Many expositions of the atonement fixate on mechanics, trying to identify precisely how the atonement works, failing to recognise that the plurality of metaphors in the New Testament serve to illuminate the atonement precisely as they protect its mystery. It is here that Donne’s poem was refreshing. Donne celebrates the mystery and wonder of the atonement, situates it within the overarching story of the love of God, appeals to biblical metaphors, especially the idea of redemption, but steers clear of treating atonement in terms of mechanics. Thus some sense of transaction remains, but Donne does not allow detailed explanation and speculation to overshadow the wonder of divine grace.

This is a good model, I think, for preaching the atonement.

Kevin Vanhoozer, Again

Vanhoozer at MooreThank you Jamie, for letting me know that the Kevin Vanhoozer lectures from the Annual Moore College Lectures have now been posted online. The lectures can be accessed here.

(See my earlier post on the first lecture here, including my comment about the question I asked Kevin.)

I was present for the first (public) lecture on Friday night, and my question can be found at about 1 hour, 10 minutes of that lecture. Listening to Kevin’s answer again, I still think he misunderstands my question, but perhaps not so drastically as I thought on the night. He still suggests that the problem with interpretive pluralism as Smith presents it, is located in the biblicist interpreter who wants the Bible to address questions it was never intended to address. This is certainly an aspect of Smith’s argument, and I agree with Vanhoozer on this point. Smith, however—and this is the question that Kevin did not concede—does locate interpretive pluralism in the biblical text itself, however, in addition to the problem of the biblicist interpreter. The biblicist approaches the Bible as though its meaning was univocal, as though it speaks clearly with a single voice and meaning. Smith continually suggests, however, that this approach is itself inadequate:

If these descriptive accounts and analogies about how the Bible is actually read and made sense of by real Christians are essentially correct and revealing, then that tells us something very important. It tells us that the Bible is multivocal in its plausible interpretive possibilities: it can and does speak to different listeners in different voices that appear to say different things. […] Whatever biblicist theories say ought to be true about the Bible, in their actual, extensive experience using the Bible in practice, Christians recurrently discover that the Bible consists of irreducibly multivocal, polysemic, and multivalent texts (polysemy means “multiple meanings” and multivalent means “many appeals or values”) (Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, 47, original emphasis).

Or again:

The ideas of biblical multivocality, polysemy, and evidential under-determination may not fit the biblicist theory about scripture. Biblicists instead tend to assume the single, univocal meaning of biblical texts. […] The multivocality and polysemy of the Bible, and the diversity and division to which they give rise, are undeniable, historical, empirical, phenomenological facts.  It is not that multiple possible meanings are necessarily read into scripture by readers’ subjectivities (although sometimes they are) but rather that, even when read as good believers should read the texts, the words of scripture themselves can and usually do give rise to more than one possible, arguably legitimate interpretation. This very biblical multivocality and polysemy is exactly what explains a great deal of why Protestantism in particular—the tradition that, as the historical champion of sola scriptura and biblical perspicuity, has primarily fostered biblicism—is itself extremely fragmented doctrinally, ecclesiologically, and culturally. […] To deny the multivocality of scripturure is to live in a self-constructed world of unreality (Smith, The Bible, 52-54).

My question to Kevin was asking for his response to this claim. I would still like to hear it, and I will listen to the lectures with interest to see whether he does address it in one of the later sessions. To me, Smith’s contention has more than a grain of truth, and if anything, makes Kevin Vanhoozer’s project all the more necessary. We need carefully devised hermeneutical principles for reading scripture well. Kevin’s proposal for a gospel-oriented (the five solas) and ecclesial (the priesthood of believers) model for biblical interpretation will be, I believe, an important contribution to this essential discussion.

Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Review)

Stephen-FowlFowl, Stephen E., Theological Interpretation of Scripture: A Short Introduction (Milton Keynes, Paternoster, 2009).

Stephen Fowl describes his little book as a ‘companion’ to the theological interpretation of Scripture with the twin tasks of first, exploring some ‘connections between this long-running and essential Christian practice’ and more recent scholarship around the issue, and second, to help readers navigate their way through the contemporary literature (x). The first of five chapters lays the foundation by providing a short description of the nature and role of Scripture in God’s drama of salvation. Fowl finds that christological approaches to the nature of Scripture disconnect theological construction from the interpretation of Scripture, and so suggests a new model of understanding the nature of Scripture is required. He adopts John Webster’s approach of locating Scripture within the triune economy so that for Christians, ‘the ends of reading, interpreting, and embodying Scripture are determined decisively by the ends of God’s self revelation, which are directed towards drawing humans into ever-deeper communion with the triune God and each other’ (6-7).

The second chapter locates theological interpretation with respect to other concerns including history and historical criticism, biblical theology, reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, and philosophical hermeneutics. The key issue in all these discussions is the insistence that the Bible is church’s book with the result that theological concerns and ends are primary to all others. Theology is not merely the result of biblical study but plays a regulative function in the hermeneutical process. In his treatment of the question of history and historical criticism, for example, Fowl contrasts modern and pre-modern modes of biblical study. Whereas the latter was ordered toward ‘helping Christians achieve their proper end in God,’ modern biblical study grants priority to historical rather than theological concerns (16). Rather than viewing Scripture as providing a true interpretation of reality, Scripture is now read and interpreted in light of what we know of the so-called ‘real world.’ This reversal of the relationship between text and world not only requires historical criticism but pushes theological concerns to the margins (18-20). Fowl would not banish historical criticism but would see its hegemony in biblical studies overthrown. Historical study remains valid and important, nevertheless ‘granting theological concerns priority will involve a return to the practice of using Scripture as a way of ordering and comprehending the world rather than using the world as a way of comprehending Scripture’ (23). So, too, Fowl would displace authorial intent from a position of primacy in biblical interpretation, suggesting that Christians will want to read texts such as Isaiah 7:14 in the light of Christ, and John 1 in the light of Nicaea, the communicative intent of the prophet and apostle notwithstanding (49). In a telling comment Fowl insists that

Rather than rely on hermeneutics to combat interpretive anarchy and sinful interpretation, believers should seek to regulate these tendencies ecclesially. In short, we should not ask philosophy to do the church’s work (51).Fowl, THEOLOGICAL_INTERPRETATION_OF_SCRIPTURE

The third chapter identifies several key practices and habits of theological interpretation. Here Fowl suggests believers attend to pre-modern modes of interpretation, especially those where the interpretations issued in ‘masterful performances’ whereby the saints were drawn into ever deeper communion with God and neighbour (54-56). He also argues for ‘figural’ readings of the text, where ‘literal’ readings may not provide a sharp enough vision to account for the world in which we live. Note, however, that Fowl’s description of a ‘literal’ reading of Scripture is “the meanings conventionally ascribed to a passage by Christian communities” (56-57). The final set of practices are not so much practices of interpretation as practices to help the Christian community as it actually interprets Scripture and so inevitably finds itself confronted with different interpretations and the threat of division. These practices include truth seeking and telling, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, and finally, patience, both toward one another in the community, and toward God, in confidence that God will ultimately bring the community to its ultimate end in Christ (64-70).

The final two chapters survey issues and prospects for the future, and provide an annotated bibliography that considers some of the key scholars and contributions to the somewhat ‘chaotic party’ that makes up the present interest in theological interpretation. Perhaps the most interesting points here are Fowl’s call for a great deal more cross-fertilisation and robust argument between theologians and biblical scholars, as well as more reflection on how the sermon might become a mode for serious theological interpretation of Scripture (72-73).

This is indeed a short introduction to theological interpretation of Scripture, and perhaps, in the end, too short, especially for a beginner. Those seeking to be inducted into the methodology and practices of theological interpretation would be better directed to a lengthier treatment of the topic such as Dan Trier’s Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Baker, 2008).

Nevertheless it would be uncharitable to hold Fowl accountable for what he has clearly not attempted to do. His little book effectively argues for the validity of theological interpretation if one can accept his primary presupposition that Scripture is divinely given to lead God’s people more deeply into communion with the triune God and with one another. Further, it provides the essential orientation and ethos of theological interpretation, as well as giving a number of examples of theological interpretation at work; and all this in so short a book! An added bonus is that Fowl is bound to upset scholars all over the theological playing field. Some will cry, “off-side” because of his regulative principle, others because he displaces the author, others because he de-centres historical criticism, others because he values pre-critical modes of biblical interpretation. For me, this is a strength of the work, for he is clearly not beholden to any one school of thought. Further, his regulative principle is left quite broad, intentionally I suspect, so that reading communities of different persuasion will find that they can practise theological interpretation within the promise and bounds of their various traditions and convictions.

For myself, I welcome the book and resonate with the approach. I hope especially that pastors and elders might stumble upon this work and begin leading their congregations in the kinds of practices Fowl commends. Perhaps more congregations might then so read Scripture, that new and renewed communities of saints would again be found who faithfully and fruitfully embody the theological vision of the Bible, as they live more deeply in communion with God, with one another, and with all their neighbours.

Migliore on Revelation & Scripture

Daniel MiglioreThe narratives of Scripture are not simply interesting stories to inform, entertain, or edify us. They aim to engage, liberate, convert, and transform us. Their purpose is to tell what God has done for us and to invite us to enter into the new freedom that is ours in Christ. They make truth claims about God and about the world in relation to God, and they call for our personal response. Only as these narratives of the activity of God intersect our own lives, personally and corporately, opening us to a new relationship to God, a new identity, a new life, and a new mission, do they become for us genuine media of the revelation of God (Faith Seeking Understanding 3rd edition, 39).

Daniel Migliore’s chapter on revelation is a study in theological clarity. He defines revelation as God’s self-disclosure in Christ narrated in Scripture. He models revelation as analogous to interpersonal communication, whereby another may become known to us through the persistent patterns seen in their activity, through their promises, and the story in which their character is narrated. Scripture plays an essential and irreplaceable role in communicating divine revelation, while in and of itself Scripture is not revelation but witnesses to the revelation given in God’s redemptive activity in Israel and Christ.

In the citation above, some of Migliore’s commitments are evident. Scripture aims at human liberation and transformation, announcing the redemptive work of God on behalf of all. Yet God’s activity calls for personal response; revelation has both an objective and subjective aspect. Scripture becomes a medium of revelation as it intersects and opens our lives in and through the power and work of the Holy Spirit. Revelation must come to fulfilment otherwise it is not revelation proper, for revelation is not simply the provision of information. Revelation is salvific and transformative, conferring a new identity, life and mission.

Yet Migliore also insists that “the biblical narrative of God’s self-disclosure is an unfinished narrative. It remains open…” (39, original emphasis). Is Migliore saying that Scripture is unfinished, that revelation also is unfinished, that new revelation might be given in the present age that has equal authority to that given in Scripture, or which may even surpass Scripture? He does not say so. He does say that God “continues to work by the Holy Spirit to illuminate and complete the narrative.” His intent is to honour the divine freedom, insisting that God’s self-revelation never becomes our “fixed possession.”

The role of Scripture as a means of revelation is central, and calls for free human response.

On the one hand, there can be no reception of the revelation of God in Christ apart from attentive and trustful reading and hearing of the witness of Scripture in company with other members of the people of God. Only in the context of faith, prayer, proclamation, sacramental life, and service of the church does the transforming power of Jesus Christ attested by Scripture become effective for us. On the other hand, there is always a need for critical appropriation of the revelation of God in Christ as mediated to us by Scripture and the proclamation and life of the church (43).

Migliore insists that the people of God be “active and responsible recipients” of revelation, practising legitimate interpretation informed by a christological hermeneutic. Perhaps most important for Migliore is “the new freedom in Christ” which is to guide all interpretation of Scripture in order to “resist every form of bondage, including those that may be supported by certain elements of Scripture and church teaching.” So important is this hermeneutical lens that in his chapter on the authority of Scripture he insists that,

A major task of theology today is to recover a liberative understanding of the authority of Scripture. Toward this end I will contend that the authority of Scripture has to be understood in relation to its central content and its particular function within the community of faith. Scripture is the unique and irreplaceable witness to the liberating and reconciling activity of God in the history of Israel and supremely in Jesus Christ (46).

But this function and power of Scripture can never simply be assumed:

Revelation can never be considered our possession, something we can take for granted. It is an event for which the church must continually pray: “Come, Holy Spirit! Speak once again to your people through your Word” (44).

On Being a Reader – Even of Scripture

Pride and Prejudice - PenguinIn 1972, Tony Tanner’s introduction to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice notes:

For during a decade in which Napoleon was effectively engaging, if not transforming, Europe, Jane Austen composed a novel in which the most important events are the fact that a man changes his manners and a young lady changes her mind… Jane Austen’s book is, most importantly, about pre-judging and re-judging. It is a drama of recognition – re-cognition, that act by which the mind can look again at a thing and if necessary make revisions and amendments until it sees the thing as it really is (368-369).

Tanner’s introduction (see Austen, J. Pride and Prejudice, Penguin Classics edition, 1996), provides a psychological reading of Austen’s masterpiece, using the work of Hume as a lens. In his view, Pride and Prejudice deals with issues of character, decisions and “first impressions” (Austen’s working title for the book before its publication).

In the same edition an updated introduction is provided by Vivien Jones, who notes:

Written in a period of political crisis and social mobility, [Austen’s novels] are strategic critical analyses of the moral values and modes of behaviour through which a section of the ruling class was redefining itself … She writes, therefore, about femininity and about class: about forms of identity and about marriage as a political institution which reproduces – symbolically as well as literally – the social order. …

Selfconscious, rational, sceptical: Elizabeth is an Enlightenment figure skilfully integrated, through the mechanisms of romantic comedy, into the traditional Burkean hierarchy which Enlightenment values sought to dismantle…

Romantic love makes individual happiness both the motivation and the goal of moral and social change. … So the power to motivate and reward change, both personal and social, lies with the woman. … This plot formula seems to give women, and the values they represent, a lot of power and responsibility. But it is power of a carefully circumscribed kind. The social order has been modified, not radically altered. Austen’s post-revolutionary achievement in Pride and Prejudice is to put Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary femininity at the service of the Burkean ‘family party’ by writing what is still one of the most perfect, most pleasurable and most subtle – and therefore, perhaps, most dangerously persuasive – of romatic love stories (xv, xxxii, xxxv).

Jones and Tanner are two very different readers of the same story, and provide an excellent example of the reality that who the reader is and what they bring to a text makes a decisive difference to the way they read the text and what they see in it.  Tanner sees a wonderfully written romantic comedy devoid of political significance, while Jones sees a wonderfully written romantic comedy that serves as a vehicle for a sophisticated political vision that fuses elements of early feminism and conservative Burkean hierarchy, against a backdrop of revolutionary France.

It is likely that Tanner was unable to even see what Jones has seen in the story. It is not simply that Jones reads as a woman, though I suspect that is part of it. She is also schooled in feminist literature and history and so is alive and sensitive to issues in Austen’s context that Tanner simply did not see. Is Jones over-reading the novel, seeing in it things that are not there? This is a danger confronting every reader, and could legitimately be asked of Tanner as well. But no, her reading of Austen is insightful and well-supported. Both introductions are excellent and well worth reading, and Penguin is to be commended for keeping them both in their revised volume. They highlight development in Austen scholarship between the early 70s and mid 90s, and feminist contributions to literary study.

They alert us also to the significance of the reader which has evident implications for readers of Scripture. We do not simply read the biblical text in some kind of unfiltered way, gaining direct and unmediated access to “the truth.” Every act of reading is also an act of interpretation, and we interpret what we read according to the frameworks of understanding we bring to the text – whether consciously or unconsciously, whether well or ill-informed.

What has shaped you as a reader?

Reading Scripture Theologically

Expository Times 125-10Former Vose New Testament lecturer, Richard Moore has an article in the present issue of Expository Times (Vol. 125, No. 10 (July 2014)), together with a response from NT Wright. (There are other Perth links in the issue with a review of Matthew Malcolm’s The World of 1 Corinthians, and a review article of Bill Loader’s The New Testament on Sexuality: Attitudes towards sexuality in Judaism and Christianity in the Hellenistic Greco-Roman Era).

Richard’s article is sharply focussed on a particular issue: how Wright translates the Greek word dikaiosunē (“righteousness,” “justification”) and its cognates in Wright’s translation of the Greek New Testament into English (The New Testament for Everyone). Richard has two interests at work here: first, he has spent a lifetime exploring Paul’s use and doctrine of dikaiosunē, in the New Testament, in the history of the church, and English bible translations; and second, he has just completed his own translation of the New Testament Under the Southern Cross: The New Testament in Australian English, to be published later this year.

Richard finds fault with Wright’s translation because of the many different English words Wright uses to translate the same Greek word: “This can only confuse his reader, and, of course, prevent the reader from hearing what Paul is actually saying in this section” (485). A subsidiary concern is that Wright’s translation is idiosyncratic, illegitimately importing notions of covenant theology into Paul’s theology of justification, whereas for Richard, “Paul was not a covenant theologian” (485; original emphasis).

In his response to Richard’s article, Wright defends his translation by focussing on the covenantal context of the primary Old Testament passages from the Abrahamic narrative, and by using his own linguistic arguments to demonstrate that Paul has the Septuagint in mind as he writes, which links covenant and righteousness. Though Paul only infrequently uses covenantal language, the whole context of the passages he is citing from Genesis are covenantal in nature, where God’s gift of right relationship is grounded in God’s covenant. Wright therefore argues that his translation attempts to elucidate what he considers to be Paul’s theological perspective, and that it requires the kind of English language terms and idioms he has used.

What is evident in this minor dispute is that the two authors have two ways of approaching the tasks of exegesis and biblical theology. At the level of translation, Richard appropriately argues for consistency so that the English translation has strong linguistic connections with the underlying Greek text. His argument is not, I think, without merit this point, for it appears that Wright goes beyond translation to exposition by importing his particular understanding of Paul into the work of translation.

I am not competent, ultimately, to adjudicate this dispute about what constitutes faithful interpretation. My interest concerns the way these two theologians have read the biblical text, at least as that is represented in these two articles. At base, there is a fundamentally different understanding between the two authors, as to what, precisely, Paul means when he uses dikaiosunē language. It seems that the root of this difference are different ways of reading Scripture, with different weight being given to linguistic, grammatical, and narrative features of the biblical texts. Both authors read Scripture theologically, and both bring an interpretation to Paul. But since their method of engaging Scripture differs, so too do their resulting theologies.