Archive for May, 2009
Joel Green, Fuller NT prof, editor of Catalyst, and all around great guy, mentioned my Catalyst article (see here as well) in a Facebook note. This has prompted a bit of discussion on Facebook itself, but also gave cause to two blog posts, one by a student of Joel’s and another by a more seasoned NT scholar. Rather than type lengthy comments in each of their blogs, I’ve tried to continue the conversation with responses to them here. My hope is to clarify some things about theological interpretation and prod my interlocutors a little in order to keep the dialogue going. You are more than welcome to join in here or on one of their blog posts.
Seth Heringer asks, “I wonder where Spinks sees theological interpretation falling?” If I were forced to choose among the four options Seth presents—(1) separate faith and theology out of scientific exegesis; (2) study the theology contained within the NT without making any truth claims about that theology; (3) mix scientific exegesis (think historical-critical paradigm) and theology in an unsystematic fashion; and (4) cast scientific exegesis overboard in pursuit of theology—I would likely follow the fourth option with severe qualifications. My problem with the way it’s all set up is that Seth continues to work with the theology/biblical studies dichotomy and creates four concoctions with various amounts of each ingredient. I reject the dichotomy to begin with—at least as far as theological interpretation of Scripture is concerned. It’s a different matter altogether if we are talking about purely academic disciplines. Theological interpretation, to my mind, is not an academic discipline in the strictest sense. It is something academics can, do, and should participate in, but on its own it is not an “academic” discipline that is looking for the right amounts of scientific exegesis and theology. Let me respond to parts of the post to further my point. You will want to see the post to get all of the references to it I make.
I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that I draw on Francis Watson other than I quote him as saying that theological interpretation is “a new paradigm for biblical interpretation [that] has begun to take shape and to establish itself.” I do not draw on him much beyond noting his observation. Theological interpretation is on the rise. It has begun to take shape and establish itself. The question is What is it that has started to take shape and establish itself?
To be frank, I’m not sure just what it is. What I have observed are the very “hues” Seth highlights, though he enumerates and describes them a bit differently than I do and in some respects creates a different set of hues altogether. His third hue is “Recalls the practices of historical interpretation,” where he says, “[Spinks] establishes a link between the postmodern turn to ‘faith-ful’ readings and the pre-critical readings of church history.” If he means by “historical interpretation” those approaches to scriptural interpretation from earlier generations, then I suppose Seth’s description is resonant with my point on the renewal of pre-modern interpretation. But, I am not sure I ever make explicit a link between the postmodern turn to “faith-ful” (I purposefully add an extra l to make it “faith-full”) readings and earlier readings within church history. (By the way, I do not use the term “pre-critical” in the section under question. That is Seth’s term. I do not believe pre-modern readings were somehow not critical. They were critical, but they started from a different place and asked different questions than “professional” biblical interpreters are used to asking.) I do think postmodernity has questioned the dichotomies that pre-modern readers were not usually bothered by. The separation of theology and biblical interpretation is a wholly modern division. So, in that way, interpretations of times gone by resonate with postmodern questioning and have something to teach us about the set of lenses we put on as we approach the text.
Seth is pressing interesting and important points, but I see them as beholden to the categories and language established by a couple hundred years of the predominance of a particular methodology, namely historical criticism, and the division of disciplines that came out of that methodological hegemony. Theological interpretation, as I am beginning to see it, is at one and the same time new and old. It is new because it resists being defined with the established categories, or at least it resists the way in which those categories have been prescribed for use. Yes, faith, texts, meanings, exegesis are a part of the glossary, but theological interpretation need not allow scientific exegetes be the ones to say how and in what sort of conversations these terms can be used. It is old because it hearkens back to a time when these terms and concepts were not governed by a particular methodology. Thus, to Seth’s question “Maybe he has a paradigm I have not identified?” I do not have a paradigm in mind. I have rather a conceptualization or an attitude in mind. I conceptualize theological interpretation as a constellation of conversations (historical, theological, ethical, etc.) centered on the community’s reading(s) of its sacred text. No paradigm required.
Now, at the same time that I seem to be taking the reins away from the historical-critical method, I do not want to kick it off of the wagon. And, this is where I make qualifications to the fourth of Seth’s options. Historical investigation has much to say about what direction the prairie schooner will go. I tend to follow Stephen Fowl’s assessment that historical methods are to be used in an ad hoc way as the community reads its Scripture for reasons other than historical ones. Here I point you to the series on the Christian Theology and the Bible blog where a section of Fowl’s upcoming book on theological interpretation is being excerpted over eight parts.
So why my identification with option 4 and not option 3? Doesn’t it seem like my description here is an unsystematic admixture of scientific exegesis and theology? I suppose it does. But, let me reiterate, I am supposing that I’ve been forced to choose among Seth’s options. I would not have delineated the options in the way he does for the reasons I stated above. Unlike option #4, I would not toss scientific exegesis overboard. Similar to option #4, however, I would claim that theological interpretation is primarily concerned with theology broadly defined. I do not mean by this the systematic theology of the academy, which stands apart from the scientific exegesis of the academy. Theological interpretation is concerned with the life of the Body of Christ in communion with one another and with God, and with the reading of Scripture for such ends. I am beginning to think that theological interpretation is theosis all the way down, or at least it is a part of the community’s ongoing strive for theosis. But this is not a well-developed thought. I only toss it out here as a suggestion for further consideration. For theological interpretation, scientific exegesis is neither an end in itself, nor something to be abandoned, nor an ingredient in a programmatic recipe; but rather, it is a tool sometimes used to assist the body of readers who read for broadly theological reasons. Theological interpretation, thus, puts scientific exegesis in its proper place.
In another blog post, Greg Carey is concerned that theological interpretation dwells too much on generalities and loses sight of the difficult particulars. He states early on in his post, “I’m not convinced the movement has fully faced the complications implied in the questions it is asking.” I’d be interested to know what questions Carey sees the movement asking. As I see it, theological interpretation begins with larger questions of ultimate importance, much like the inquisitive lawyer in Luke who wanted to know how to have eternal life. While theological interpreters may not be asking that particular question, they do approach the text with questions like, “What does this text have to say to our ongoing life with God and with one another?” How does one “fully” face the implied complications in that sort of question? (And, what does “fully face” mean as opposed to just simply “face”?)
Theological interpretation, at least as I see it taking shape, is just that act of facing these complications. It begins with a conviction about the nature of the texts under consideration, namely that they are sacred, they are “divine discourse” (if I may borrow from Wolterstorff without aligning myself wholesale with his ideas). Theological interpretation is not the exercise of making the complicated uncomplicated. It is not about clearing away all of the difficulties of the particulars in the biblical texts. It is in part about coming to terms with the complications and difficulties as a community in communion with God and each other, and in light of the sacredness of the texts. It is not an avoidance of the implied complications; it is a complete embrace of and engagement with them.
I don’t think Carey will find many theological interpreters disagreeing with his assessment of what “theological interpretation should be about, bringing the life of faith into conversation with scripture (141-44). That can be a messy process.” Messy, indeed! But, while Carey acknowledges the messiness, he still seems to want a vision of theological interpretation that will keep things in order and bear the heavy weight of the biblical complications, in other words clean up the mess. He wonders if what Joel Green “says [in Seized by Truth] about the Bible in general will bear the weight of the Bible’s particulars.” It’s a legitimate pondering, but does Carey dismiss the general notions of Scripture most theological interpretations are affirming?
If he is concerned that we will miss the peculiarities of the trees in trying to describe the forest, is he so concerned about the knotty bark of the trees that he forgets we Christians entered the forest in the first place because we believed it to be God’s and that even with all of the peculiar and complicated things in it, God speaks to the body of Christ through it? He urges his readers: “Let’s not generalize about the Bible and its subject matter, thus boxing us in to those dimensions of scripture that fit the model.” What dimensions and model does Carey have in mind? The primary dimension of the Bible that I see for those interested in a theological interpretation of it is in some ways a dimensionless dimension (if I may propose such an oxymoron). These texts are sacred texts of a community that strives to live faithfully with each other and with God, who fits no model and has no measurable dimensions. With that conviction, I see no reason to disagree with Carey’s closing exhortation, “Instead, let’s commit to read the Bible with curiosity, passion, and faith—the whole Bible—trusting the Spirit and the community of faith to guide us through.” And with that I can forgive him for referring to me as Sparks at one point in the essay.
The Christian Theology and the Bible blog is posting a series from Stephen Fowl’s soon-to-be-published book, Theological Interpretation of Scripture in the Cascade Companion series. The posts will be Fowl’s discussion of “History and Historical Criticism” from the book’s second chapter.
All you biblio– and theo-bloggers can now publish your blogs for Kindle readers, just don’t expect to get a fair piece of the required subscription price (no free blogs!). And, certainly don’t expect me to pay for it. I’ve purchased only two things in the two months I’ve had a Kindle. They are both books, one of which was as much for my wife to read as it was for me. I can’t see myself dishing out up to $100 per month to get all of the blogs in my RSS reader onto my Kindle. As I see it, at least for myself, the Kindle will stand in for individual books from time to time. It will not become some fascinating hyperlinked handheld computer or research tool. I don’t think Amazon imagines a researcher replacing all the many books and the computer she has scattered across her desk with a Kindle. Rather, I think they imagine that reader by the fireplace, in the recliner, on a plane, in bed, on the subway, etc. Reading blogs, much like research and work, is something I do at my desk throughout the course of the day. Reading the Kindle is something I do on the couch or in bed. Still, if you are so inclined and want to make a few pennies here and there, publish your blog for the Kindle. There are surely a few people who would like to read your blog by the fireplace.
I am currently working with the files for the first two volumes in the New Covenant Commentary Series. The series description reads:
The New Covenant Commentary Series (NCCS) is designed for ministers and students who require a commentary that interacts with the text and context of each New Testament book and pays specific attention to the impact of the text upon the faith and praxis of contemporary faith communities.
The NCCS has a number of distinguishing features. First, the contributors come from a diverse array of backgrounds in regards to their Christian denominations and countries of origin. Unlike many commentary series that tout themselves as international the NCCS can truly boast of a genuinely international cast of contributors with authors drawn from every continent of the world (except Antarctica) including countries such as the United States, Puerto Rico, Australia, the United Kingdom, Kenya, India, Singapore, and Korea. We intend the NCCS to engage in the task of biblical interpretation and theological reflection from the perspective of the global church. Second, the volumes in this series are not verse-by-verse commentaries, but they focus on larger units of text in order to explicate and interpret the story in the text as opposed to some often atomistic approaches. Third, a further aim of these volumes is to provide an occasion for authors to reflect on how the New Testament impacts the life, faith, ministry, and witness of the New Covenant Community today. This occurs periodically under the heading of “Fusing the Horizons and Forming the Community.” Here authors provide windows into community formation (how the text shapes the mission and character of the believing community) and ministerial formation (how the text shapes the ministry of Christian leaders).
It is our hope that these volumes will represent serious engagements with the New Testament writings, done in the context of faith, in service of the church, and for the glorification of God.
Michael F. Bird (Highland Theological College, Dingwall, Scotland)
Craig Keener (Palmer Seminary, Philadelphia, USA)
Titles in this series:
Colossians/Philemon by Michael F. Bird
Romans by Craig Keener
Forthcoming titles (in order of projected publication):
Ephesians by Lynn Cohick
James by Pablo Jimenez
1–3 John by Sam Ngewa
Revelation by Gordon Fee
John by Jey Kanagaraj
Pastoral Epistles by Aida Besancon-Spencer
Mark by Kim Huat Tan
Acts by Youngmo Cho
Luke by Jeannine Brown
2 Peter and Jude by Andrew Mbuvi
Matthew by Joel Willits
1 Peter by Eric Greaux
1–2 Thessalonians by David Garland
Philippians by Linda Belleville
Hebrews by Tom Thatcher
Galatians by Brian Vickers
1 Corinthians by Bruce Winter
2 Corinthians by David deSilva
Bird’s and Keener’s volumes should be available by the end of the summer. Here’s a little taste from the early pages of both.
What begs for transformation in many cases is our ecclesiology. Why is the church so diverse, and is this a good thing? After all, diversity breeds difference, debate, and even division. Would not a uniform, homogenous, almost clone-like church be better for unity? Yet the body of Christ has an indelible and irreducible plurality built into it. The church is one body with many parts complete with a unity in diversity. Experiencing the power of forgiveness and being made part of the renewed Israel is a saving event that crosses racial, geographical, and cultural boundaries. Christians have a shared identity in Jesus Christ, they are part of a renewed Adamic race, they have accepted the call to come into Abraham’s family of the faithful, they are forgiven of their wicked and godless ways, and they seek to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope, and love as well. That which unites them is infinitely stronger than anything that might divide them from one another. (Bird)
Whatever else “faith” means for Paul, it is not a human work, whether physical or (as sometimes in Protestantism) mental in nature (Rom 3:27–28; 4:5; 9:32; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5). It involves dependence on God’s righteousness. This means not a Kierkegaardian “leap into the dark” (reacting to the Kantian consignment of faith to the category of subjectivity), but embracing truth in the gospel (in contrast to the false ideologies of the world; cf. Rom 1:18–23, 28). We should note, however, that just as “righteousness” involves transformation, so the term pistis includes the sense of “faithfulness”—loyalty and allegiance—and not simply an intellectual acknowledgement. Genuine dependence on Christ invites genuine loyalty to him, not simply reciting a statement about him as if nothing is truly at stake. (Keener)
I received the following email today. Seems interesting.
Codex Sinaiticus: Text, Bible, Book
The British Library is hosting a two-day conference on the 6th and 7th of July 2009 on behalf of the Codex Sinaiticus Project. The conference will celebrate the virtual reunification of Codex Sinaiticus, an outstanding manuscript which ranks as one of the oldest and most complete Bibles in existence. The event will offer a unique opportunity to hear leading experts from around the world speak about the making, history, text, transmission, conservation and digitisation of this monumentally important manuscript.
Eldon J. Epp
Kristin de Troyer
The conference will be complemented by an exhibition at the British Library which will highlight the history of this great book from the time of its creation over 1600 years ago to its twenty-first century appearance in digital form.
To find details on how to book a place at this fascinating event please go to the conference page on the Codex Sinaiticus website where you will also be able to find out more about the manuscript and the work of the Codex Sinaiticus Project: http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/project/conference.aspx.
With best wishes,
Dr Juan Garcés
Project Manager, Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Projects
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7516
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7787
Some of you might be interested in the short comment thread on Matt Barnes’s post “Judging Interpretations.” [Update 5/13/09: Comment thread now also moved to a proper post all its own, “Historical Criticism is Dead?“] In short, it is a running dialogue on historical and ideological interpretations. Chime in!