Theological Interpretation: Initial Thoughts

Let me begin this post by prefacing it with the disclaimer that I have very little exposure to the primary literature of theological interpretation. I am in many respects new to the discussion (though anyone who has thought about hermeneutics has tread much of this ground before), and so after several enlightening conversations with a ThM and PhD student here at Fuller I found myself intrigued. I quickly acquired Stephen Fowl’s Cascade Companion volume and found myself more perplexed than ever. No offense to the undoubtedly qualified Fowl, but the book told me very little about how people actually do theological interpretation. His only real discussion of method involved the use of precritical interpretations and figural readings. Needless to say I was very underwhelmed. It felt like the book started in the middle of conversation, and then never progressed from there. It refused to deal with specifics as if discussion of method is somehow a betrayal of its central argument. It provides neither a useful beginning point nor does it get much to a conclusion. Let me be clear, I think the book has some useful observations to make, but should probably not be someone’s first introduction to the field.

Luckily, a sale induced me to buy Treier’s introduction which I found to be a much more capable handling of the task of introduction. In fact, it was only after reading Treier’s book that I was able to get at what Fowl was trying to say in his volume. Treier’s approach is to survey the field to provide a meaningful picture of the true spectrum of theological interpretation. I have very different feelings about Fowl’s version than say Watson’s version for example, and ultimately engaging with theological interpretation means engaging with both general principles and the distinctives of different versions.

That said, I do have some general thoughts/criticism that will apply more or less to differing versions. First, I find the general tenor of the arguments to be creating a false dichotomy between those who wholeheartedly accept the presuppositions of “historical” criticism and those who do not. Unless you are a postmodern, if you are a Christian interpreter then you have to be inconsistent or a member of the theological interpretation fold. I find this troubling, because I feel there are somewhat “historical” approaches to the text that do not require reducing hermeneutics to presuppositional apologetics. For example, I personally favor literary-critical approaches to the text. Textual critical questions aside, the thing we can undeniably say that we have is a text. That is a lot more than can be said of any reconstruction of Q. It seems more useful to me to point out the ways historical critics deviate from their own presuppositions than to argue that their presuppositions are inferior to ours. Such arguments never go anywhere, nor can they.

Second (and stemming from the dichotomy), I find the appropriation of the postmodern argument to be a somewhat confusing response to the challenge of historical criticism. Such appropriations are ultimately self-defeating, because whatever challenge is made to the truth claims of the historicist to advance the argument of the theological interpreter can equally be leveled against the theological interpreter as well. All discussions about the epistemological shortcomings of human beings apply equally to all interpretive methods done by human beings. This includes the entire body of believers that make up the Christian tradition. Any appeals to truth or certainty on the basis of a rule of faith or creed suffer under the same critiques leveled against the historicist. Furthermore, the appropriation of the postmodern argument is further self-defeating in the sense that it renders the whole discussion pointless. If people cannot be objective and are hopelessly subjective, then by virtue of nothing more than my confessional beliefs I am engaging in theological interpretation. If this is so, the theological hermeneutics discussion amounts to little more than an argument in favor of regular breathing or walking upright. In short, once the postmodern argument is presented, we need move no further.

Now, I by no means wish to misrepresent the nature of the discussion, so let me just say that an argument that counters my last observation has been made. This argument is my third point of contention. Some proponents of theological interpretation seek to carve out a middle position between the postmodernists and the historicist by appealing to the divine by way of tradition. By arguing that the Holy Spirit is the source or guidance for the creedal traditions, the proponent of theological interpretation can utilize the postmodern argument while still being able to make truth claims. As a confessing Christian, I wholeheartedly believe that the Comforter is with the church and that the Holy Spirit has been and always will be (until the end) the continuing presence of Jesus Christ. That notwithstanding, I find myself baulking at the idea of making exegesis into “God told me so!” I find the appeal to the divine in that manner to be both troubling and fruitless. It also ultimately fails given that there is no unified Christian tradition. If we appeal to the Holy Spirit in interpretation, what do we do when Roman Catholics and Baptists for example disagree? We can retreat ever further back into the creeds, but we must make justification for choosing this creed or that creed. In the end, the approach only muddies the water.

I have several more notes jotted down, but if I continue on, this post will become dreadfully long (or perhaps I should say even more so). I am clearly not an expert on the issue, so please feel free to take issue with my reading of the arguments. I think I’ll be posting a follow-up later this week if you want more of my ramblings on the topic.

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