The "Theological Interpretation" movement isn't monolithic; on the other hand, as an outsider I do identify key figures, standard works, and perhaps some common commitments. (See Christopher Spinks' essay, which offers beginning bibliography.) At the same time, I'm not convinced the movement has fully faced the complications implied in the questions it is asking. Consider two standard formulations for "theological interpretation."
- Kevin J. Vanhoozer: "The theological interpretation of the Bible is characterized by a governing interest in God, the word and works of God, and by a governing intention to engage in what we might call 'theological criticism.'" ("Introduction," Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible [ed. Vanhoozer, et al., 22)
- The Scripture Project enumerates nine theses on interpretation, which include, "Scripture truthfully tells the story of God's action of creating, judging, and saving the world," and "The four canonical Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus." (Ellen F. Davis, and Richard B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture, 1, 3)
The second quotes, those two theses, I cannot embrace. They concern the kinds of conclusions theological interpretation may advocate. I'm sure there's a philosophical sense in which one could make those two theses seem meaningful, but let's be real. On an ordinary reading, those theses rule out the possibility that the Bible itself might present problems to us. Sometimes the God of the Bible saves through genocide, and Luke himself tells us he was trying to improve on earlier Jesus stories -- like, say, Mark (Luke 1:1-4). I cannot discern how these theses help us sort through God's command to slaughter the Amalekites and their cattle or how to respond to the diverse testimony of the four Gospels.
I mentioned engaging this conversation in another venue. In response to Sparks' essay, referenced above, I wrote, "Whatever generalizations we make regarding the Bible as scripture must stand up to reading the Bible as a whole and in its particulars, I think." Those particulars included things like genocide as a model of divine deliverance and the legitimation of slavery.
One colleague, to whose work I refer frequently, suggested that perhaps I was stuck in the archaic pattern that moves too quickly from "interpretation" to "application." According to him, "theological interpretation" has moved beyond that pattern. Another participant mentioned the essay on slavery in the Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible. There William J. Webb finds a "redemptive movement" in biblical discussions of slavery. Apparently, the biblical texts are relatively progressive in their own contexts. The biblical witnesses were not "redemptive in any absolute sense" but rather set a "clear direction" that would have served the church well in its later slavery debates.
This is inadequate. On a spectrum of ancient opinion, yes, the Bible comes off well to the progressive end on slavery. Others, including some pagans and some second century Christians, held even more egalitarian views. But that's beside the point. A good healthy dose of historical analysis shows that the Bible itself speaks with diverse voices on the question. Paul may well have opposed slavery with all the power available to him (I don't have space here to spell out that argument), but people writing in Paul's name aggressively tamed Paul's liberatory push. Thus, Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Timothy put slaves back in their (relatively less abusive) places. How, I ask, does Webb's discussion, which ignores the standard issue of authorship and diversity within Scripture, help us negotiate such diversity?
I believe I have offered a different model for theological engagement of the slavery question, one that does not "jump" from interpretation to application, in Sinners. There I engage 1 Peter, which exhorts slaves to endure abuse. Historical and rhetorical analysis come into play here, as I argue that the structure of 1 Peter surrounds socially conservative social teachings with concern regarding persecution. I do not draw a conclusion on the matter, but I suggest that 1 Peter raises significant questions for contemporary disciples. In a context marked by alienation and persecution, I suggest, 1 Peter offers its audience two ways of relating to the world. On the one hand, they are a holy nation, a royal priesthood, called to distinctive discipleship in a hostile world. On the other hand, they are to avoid persecution by living within standard social norms. All Christian communities face this challenge of balancing distinctiveness with cultural "respectability." This is merely a suggestion, but it models what I believe theological interpretation should be about, bringing the life of faith into conversation with scripture (141-44). That can be a messy process.
Joel B. Green's recent book Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture, suggests that terms like "infallibility" and "inerrancy" have not served the church [originally, "evangelicals"] well. They reduce scripture to propositions, but they do not guarantee the kinds of interpretations that represent faithful engagement (146-48). Proper reading of scripture, Green argues, takes form in lives shaped by the Bible rather than in rigidly "correct" conclusions regarding it (see also his argument from Luke and Acts, pp. 42-50). But like McKnight and Dunn, Green entirely avoids the Bible's "problem" dimensions. Thus, I'm not convinced that what he says about the Bible in general will bear the weight of the Bible's particulars.
This is why I'm reaching out to my evangelical sisters and brothers. Let's not generalize about the Bible and its subject matter, thus boxing us in to those dimensions of scripture that fit the model. 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.