writing things down…

Response to Replies to Catalyst Article

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.



  Greg wrote @

Christopher, Thank you for your kind reply. I’ve replied, with an apology for calling you “Sparks.” Yikes.

  Patrick George McCullough wrote @

Chris, Your specialty is in quite a different direction than mine, but with all the talk of “specialist” versus “generalist” happening, I am so grateful that I have you to write these thoughtfully engaging pieces on theological interpretation–as little intellectual treats to partake while I presently continue about my own “scientific” tree bark examination.

  Chris wrote @

Patrick, a theological interpreter is a generalist par excellence! That’s my problem, I have no specialty. I don’t see how one could be a theological interpreter and not be a generalist. That is not to say that specialists can’t have theological sensibilities; just that the outworking of their specialty would not likely fall under the category of theological interpretation.

  Seth Heringer wrote @

Dr. Spinks,

Thanks again for the great interaction with my post. Your points gave much grist for thought, which resulted in a post far longer than could fit in these comments. You can find it here
Best Wishes! Seth

  Seth Heringer wrote @

Thanks for the comment. I agree that the main issue was that we are both engaging different dialogue partners – thanks for pointing that out. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.

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