writing things down…

Review: Reading Scripture with the Church

Reading Scripture with the Church: Toward a Hermeneutic for Theological Interpretation, A. K. M. Adam, Stephen E. Fowl, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Francis Watson, Baker Academic 2006 (0-8010-3173-7), 155 pp., $17.99.

Review in Reviews in Religion & Theology 14:3 (July 2007) 328-331.

The current rise in publications dealing with theological interpretation is astonishing.  At least two new ‘theological’ commentary series and a book series are underway.  A journal exists; another is on the way.  Numerous conferences, sessions, collaborations have been convened.  It is safe to say ‘theological interpretation’ is one of the most discussed topics in theological and biblical studies.  But, it is unclear what exactly it is, what its aims should be, or how one should go about doing it.  Theological interpretation is best described as a conversation among those who ‘share an ardent concern that the church soundly attend both to the theological weight of diverse ancient texts and to the critical investigation of those texts’ grammar, milieu, and historical verisimilitude;’ and, yet, it is a conversation about a ‘probably endless problem.’ (7)
For some years now, Adam, Fowl, Vanhoozer and Watson have been active participants in the conversation.  The four of them convened at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, presented papers and offered responses to one another as a part of the seminary’s Winslow lectures.  Baker Academic has published those papers and responses.  The book offers its readers a chance to listen in on the conversation.
For those familiar with the work of these four scholars, little will be new.  For those unfamiliar with their work or the broader conversation about theological interpretation, the book is a concise introduction to the issues on the topic and to the ideas of four of the most active thinkers on these issues.
In ‘Poaching on Zion: Biblical Theology as Signifying Practice’, Adam continues his critique of ‘the linguistic captivity of biblical interpretation’ wherein meaning is limited to a single best option. (17)  Adam instead asserts, ‘A hermeneutic that respects the full catholicity of meaning needs to start by accepting abundance as a positive condition.’ (25)  A hermeneutic for theological interpretation ought to begin from the general phenomena of semiosis rather than the metaphors of interpretation as translation and language as a conduit.  Biblical theology, he suggests, is a signifying practice that encompasses all of life, is ongoing, is not fragmented, and is something within which we should expect variety.  Of the four essays, Adam’s is the only one to propose a full-fledged model for a hermeneutic for theological interpretation.  It is also the one that paints with the broadest strokes.
While Adam calls for a theological hermeneutic driven by the notion of signifying practice, Fowl believes scriptural hermeneutics ought to be driven by theology and ecclesiology.  They draw similar conclusions.  The concern of Fowl’s essay, ‘The Importance of a Multivoiced Literal Sense of Scripture’, is the literal sense.  Both sides of the debate about literal sense ‘use the term literal in its prevailing modern sense of having only one meaning.’ (35)  ‘Historically,’ writes Fowl, ‘this is not what most Christians prior to the seventeenth century meant by taking the Scripture literally or by attending to the literal sense of Scripture.’ (35)  Fowl appeals to the multi-faceted literal sense of Scripture found in the work of Thomas Aquinas.  A thomistic notion of the literal sense is healthy because it 1) reflects the Christian doctrine of God, 2) helps foster and maintain community, upholds views about the dignity of Scripture and its place in Christian life and thought, and 4) is concerned that all people grow into deeper friendship with God.  Fowl has elsewhere argued for a multi-faceted literal sense, and has made appeal to Thomas in doing so (see Engaging Scripture, Blackwell, 1998, pp. 38-40).  The essay here is both an expansion of these earlier appeals to Thomas and a stronger push for theological interpreters to adopt thomistic notions of the literal sense.
Rather than a creative development or an expansion on pieces of his earlier work, Vanhoozer’s essay, ‘Imprisoned or Free? Text, Status, and Theological Interpretation in the Master/Slave Discourse of Philemon’, is a defense and illustration of the arguments in two previous tomes.  The first half of Vanhoozer’s essay is a summary of Is There a Meaning in This Text?  (Zondervan, 1998)–‘the Bible is a dual-authored, human and divine discourse’ (66)–complemented by the conclusions reached in The Drama of Doctrine (WJKP, 2005)–‘Scripture is a script that exists for the sake of interpreting the drama of redemption.’ (73)  In the second half of his essay, Vanhoozer’s interpretation of Philemon illustrates the way in which his notions of theological interpretation might bear on the reading of a text.  As well, his reading of Philemon presents an alternative to the master/slave distinction, namely that ‘willing servant’ is a ‘better metaphor for the Christian interpreter of Scripture.’ (91)  Oddly, given that he is not a biblical specialist by training, Vanhoozer is the only one among the four to attempt a theological interpretation of a text.  One wishes, however, that he had focused more on this part of the essay and less on the defense and summary of his earlier works.  Doing so would have cut down on the comparatively longer essay.  Vanhoozer’s words account for about 1/3 of the book’s content.
Watson’s essay, ‘Are There Still Four Gospels? A Study in Theological Hermeneutics’, at first seems out of place.  There is little direct connection to the development of a hermeneutic for theological interpretation.  Instead, Watson draws on second century resources to defend the hermeneutical principle of a fourfold gospel.  ‘The fourfoldness of the church’s canonical gospel,’ Watson claims, ‘has a theological rationale of its own.’ (98)  In a sense then the essay implies that the variety of the Gospels is a model for the variety in theological interpretation.  It also demonstrates ways in which pre-modern postures are theologically sound guides for current wrestling with this variety.
The responses following the four main papers give the authors a chance both to expand on the arguments made in the papers and to address some of the issues brought up by the other three. In his response, Watson is able to offer more toward the construction of a hermeneutic for theological interpretation. Echoing Adam and Fowl, he wonders whether theological interpreters ought to have hermeneutic that is more comprehensive. By appealing to Augustine, Watson suggests an array of interpretive priorities with no one being mutually exclusive of another. Fowl’s response situates his paper within the conversation drawing particular attention to the differences that remain between himself and Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer’s response, again notably longer than the other three, is a helpful summary of the way in which the four authors diverge in their attempts to come to terms with the plurality of scripture. While finding much to commend among his three interlocutors, Vanhoozer notes an antitheoretical bias with them and worries about the hermeneutical pragmatism. Finally, Adam briefly summarizes the four essays, noting two important facts. First, the essays display a convergence of position, while at the same time suggesting an ‘increase in the nuance of [the authors’] disagreements’ (p. 143). Second, and more importantly, Adam notes ‘the essays in this volume do not arrive at a concordant resolution.’ (p. 148).
What the volume offers its readers is not so much a consensus concerning a stated hermeneutic for theological interpretation, but instead, by its conversant disposition, the volume demonstrates a hermeneutic for the reading of scripture with the church. The hermeneutic seen here is a conversation with the voices from among the many contemporary perspectives within the church. To the informed reader the volume offers finer points on several of these perspectives and to the curious reader a lively introduction to the renewed theological conversation that has been ongoing within the church for many generations. The indexes on scripture and subjects make the volume all the more helpful to readers. All together the volume is highly recommended for students of the current theological trends in hermeneutics and could serve as a nice supplement to university, college and seminary biblical interpretation courses.

(The definitive version is available at www3.interscience.wiley.com.)


No comments yet»

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: