Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Stephen Fowl's Theological Interpretation of Scripture, #4 on Hermeneutics

For such a short book, Steven Fowl’s Theological Interpretation of Scripture covers lots of significant – and sophisticated – territory. That’s one sign of a very good book. My earlier posts have emphasized Fowl’s account of contemporary biblical scholarship, particularly historical criticism, and its relationship to theological interpretation. In this post we’ll focus on questions of how theological interpreters find meaning in scriptural texts.

Negotiating some notoriously difficult problems, Fowl offers some terrific insights. For example, Fowl rejects the attempt to propose a grand Theory (capital T) of textual meaning. Instead, he offers a more pragmatic (and I think, reasonable) approach: rather than specifying what a text “means,” we should instead clarify what kind of meaning we’re pursuing. In his words, “what our specific interpretive aims are in particular cases” (42). And on the question of authorial intent, Fowl wisely notes that we can never know an author’s intent, which is a psychological state now lost to us. But we may advance reasonable guesses concerning an author’s “communicative intention” (46-47). Nevertheless, even that goal falls short of a “primary or determinative consideration” for theological interpretation. Sometimes texts speak to us beyond the designs envisioned by their authors, and that can be a very good – and Spirit driven – thing.

Unfortunately, this brings us to the question of how the “Old Testament” speaks to us today. Again, Fowl falls upon the notion that God is the ultimate author of Scripture. As I’ve suggested, this idea explains nothing and presents more problems than it solves. That’s the case with finding Christian meaning in the Scriptures of Israel, which are now our Scriptures as well. Obviously (I agree with Fowl here) Christians will find Christian meaning in the “Old Testament.” We and they always have.

But that’s a very different argument than saying God secretly embedded Jesus messages in, say, Isaiah, for Christians to discover later. That argument suggests at least two problematic implications. First, it’s problematic to assume that Isaiah did not speak fully and adequately to the people of Israel. And second, it portrays Israel – and Jews to this day – as people who didn’t fully “get” the message of their own Scriptures. Like so many attempts to avoid anti-Jewish sentiments, this approach just moves the problem down the line. It doesn’t solve the problem of anti-Jewish interpretation.

Finally, Fowl proposes practices and habits of theological interpretation. I’ll commend the first and third with minimal comment. Like other advocates of the “theological interpretation” movement, Fowl turns to pre-modern interpretation for insight. Fowl does not call for an uncritical appropriation of pre-modern readings but for engagement with the broad sweep of the church. Absolutely! I might add that Fowl should also consider contemporary interpretation on a global scale, which is absent from his book. Believing that much conflict occurs because Christians interpret the Bible without regard for one another, Fowl also seeks to locate interpretation in the context of ecclesial practices. Amen.

Fowl’s second proposal may find more controversy, though I’m largely sympathetic to it. Fowl recommends “figural interpretation.” I may quibble with how Fowl defines “literal” interpretation, but I think Fowl is onto something important. We scholars often ridicule and reject interpretations that use the Bible as a springboard – or a pretext – for some bizarre contemporary application. We may deride seeing the parable of the Good Samaritan as a story about the journey of the soul from condemnation to salvation. However, all interpretation that finds contemporary relevance in ancient scriptures requires a leap of the imagination, some sort of figural reasoning. The point, I think, is to be honest about how we’re doing it, to engage in such interpretation in conversation with one another and the trajectories of the church, and to participate in practices of critical discernment. I’m grateful to Fowl for making me think about figural interpretation more thoroughly and for many other insights.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Stephen Fowl's Theological Interpretation of Scripture, 3: more on historical criticism

This is the third reflection on Stephen Fowl's important little book, Theological Interpretation of Scripture -- the second on his discussion of historical criticism. My most recent reflection engaged the question of how historical criticism related to theological interpretation. This one addresses three concerns Fowl raises with respect to historical criticism.

First, Fowl maintains that the ethos of historical criticism leads to "the policing of the scholar's confessional stance" (19). Fowl raises a significant point. Many of us recall being told to distinguish between "exegesis" and "eisegesis," to resist imposing our theological presuppositions upon the biblical text. Those of us who considered literary theory, cultural studies, and hermeneutics (in the context of philosophy) learned how to question that objectivist approach; we learned that one's convictions and presuppositions are necessary not only for interpretation but for learning as well.

During the 90s in particular, many of us included confessional pieces in our scholarly work: "As a white male heterosexual from a professional class Southern revivalist background...." Such disclosure performed a valuable function, but it also had a tendency to reduce interpretation to nature and nurture. Fowl might add, we tended to emphasize demographics over faith traditions.

Thus, many of us would regard Fowl's criticism with sympathy. Indeed, theological interpretation could open its doors to acknowledge that questions of ethnicity, gender, privilege, and sexuality are as much theological concerns as are identities such as Reformed, Lutheran, or Orthodox.

At the same time, I want to hold on to an aspect of that historical critical self-policing. Impossible as objectivity is, its aim was not to eliminate theology but to clear space for conversation and imagination. In other words, the ability to withhold judgment is a hermeneutical virtue, as is the capacity to see beyond one's own frame of reference. In place of objectivity, historical criticism does allow for self-criticism and an openness to dialogue. Fowl does not acknowledge this potential, and that concerns me. How do we learn if we don't combine a chastened objectivity with a passionate engagement?

Second, Fowl maintains that historical criticism tends to elevate the historical reliability of texts above their theological significance. (That's how I understand his discussion on p. 20.) Indeed, such a problem has occurred, but I might add this: after centuries of historical analysis, it's religious conservatives who tend to be preoccupied with historical reliability. The rest of us have largely moved on.

In my view, historical questions open up lots of room for theological reflection. Our historical judgments can never determine theological truth, but they surely can enlighten theological conversation.

To take one prominent example, many interpreters of Paul are now convinced that "justification by faith" was not the core of Paul's gospel. Paul's gospel, we think, was a story: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This story presupposes other stories about the God of Israel and the life of Jesus, and it creates the possibility for the church.

Yet Galatians and Romans, in particular, argue for justification by faith. And the Reformation traditions have built not only theologies but pieties upon Paul's brilliant insight. People's faith experiences now reflect the model. Are we to ditch justification by faith because of a historical insight?

Well, no. A historical approach to Paul suggests that "justification by faith" emerged as a pastoral response to conflict. When Paul addresses the question of Gentiles in the churches, he argues from justification by faith. In other words, Paul applies his gospel to the circumstances of his churches, leading to a profound theological truth. Isn't it wonderful how conflict often generates revelation? And isn't this a theological interpretation based on historical analysis?

One might add at this point that John Calvin himself was an excellent theological interpreter of Scripture who used all the tools of historical criticism at his disposal. While Calvin predated source, form, and redaction criticism, his commentaries are filled with discussions of text criticism, philological investigations, and assessments of Paul's circumstances and motives -- all aimed toward pastoral interpretation for the people of God.

Third, Fowl maintains that historical approaches led to the biblical theology movement. That movement, according to Fowl, began to systematically catalogue the diverse theological points of view of ancient Israel and the church. It emphasized historical developments and diversity at the expense of a larger, more unified view. The movement rarely developed insights that fostered love of God and love of neighbor.

The biblical theology movement has been open to many criticisms, often from within and beginning very long ago. However, I would defend one key insight of the movement. Fowl and other proponents of "theological interpretation of Scripture" tend to emphasize the unity of Scripture, whereas the biblical theology movement often underscored the Bible's theological diversity.

In my view, the church at its best has held both emphases in tension.
Tatian's Diatessaron sought to boil down the Gospels to one coherent story. But churches all over the Mediterranean celebrated four diverse Gospels. These people were not naive; they fully knew that the Gospels represented diverse, sometimes conflicting, points of view -- and they treasured that diversity above a false and imposed unity.

When I teach my introductory course, "Jesus and the Gospels," a basic learning goal is for students to appreciate the distinctive voice of each of the Gospels. Yes, that goal complicates naive faith. But for those who have ears to hear, such sensitivity plays the Gospels in stereo and enriches the spirit.

With respect to historical criticism and biblical theology, Fowl raises significant issues that merit discussion. In general, however, he understates the contributions of historical approaches to theological interpretation.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

BibleWorks 8.0 -- biblical studies software

Even though I'm a technical reader of the Bible, I'm not a strong user of technology in biblical studies. Just the same, I'm writing to review BibleWorks 8.0, by far the leading biblical studies software for the PC platform.

At $349.00 for the "full" version (and by "full," I mean entry-level), it ain't cheap. Yet BibleWorks offers stuff that's hard to find anywhere else. In the long run, it's a bargain. You get many, many modern translations of the Bible, including all of the most influential ones that are under copyright (NRSV, NIV, TNIV, Tanak) and translations in a wealth of modern languages. You get the standard critical editions of the Hebrew and Greek texts -- though the apparata for these are not available. Several helpful Greek and Hebrew grammars and lexica are available -- though the HALOT and BGAD cost lots extra.

Here's the BW intro page that guides you through the basic features.
  • If you want to read the Bible in multiple versions and ancient languages, comparing versions side by side,...
  • If you want to search the Bible for words, phrases, and words in proximity to one another, whether in a modern language or in Hebrew/Greek,...
  • If you want to consult seriously helpful lexical and grammatical helps online, plus some valuable (if dated) dictionaries -- without purchasing a whole shelf of books,...
then BibleWorks is for you. In the long run it saves you lots of money by bringing multiple translations, Hebrew and Greek texts, and reference tools all to your fingertips. You won't have the "standard" academic lexica or the textual apparata for the Hebrew and Greek texts without spending extra, but you'll have more than enough to start on basic research. The package includes helpful tutorials for both basic and advanced features; the website features such an addition.

Thanks to Jim Barr of BibleWorks for my (invaluable) review copy.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Stephen Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, 2 on Historical Criticism

Chapter Two of Fowl's Theological Interpretation of Scripture sets "theological interpretation" (in quotes, because I'm characterizing Fowl's view of it) in conversation with historical criticism, the biblical theology movement, how Christians read the "Old Testament," and theories of hermeneutics and textual meaning. Fowl acknowledges the legitimacy of each of these concerns, averring that they all "look different" in the light of theological interpretation. For now, I'd like to engage the question of historical criticism.

When I completed graduate studies I would not have characterized myself as a historical critic. I would have said something to the effect that I was interested in the interpretation of biblical texts, particularly from literary and cultural perspectives. Nevertheless, almost every instance of biblical interpretation involves some historical component.

My courses often begin with a simple exercise. I divide students into groups, assign a passage of scripture, and ask them to draw up a list of questions that they'd like to pose to that passage. I insist that they hold off from determining what the passage "means"; just develop a list of questions, please. Every time, I observe that most of the questions are basically historical, primarily involving issues of translation or cultural context. I take this to mean that modern and postmodern persons are strongly historically conscious: they intuitively apply historical categories to the interpretation of ancient texts.

Fowl argues historical criticism of the Bible tends to grant "priority" to historical concerns over theological ones. Recognizing that Christian interpreters have always honored questions of history and context, Fowl's concern lies in the aims of interpretation and in the outcomes of a modernist, historicist approach to the world. In addition to the question of "priority," Fowl advances three main critiques of historical criticism.

First, "priority." What is "priority"? By priority do we mean that historical concerns are more important than theological ones, that they're an end in themselves? Or do we mean that historical concerns ought to be addressed prior to a full theological reading?

Granted, some interpreters don't care about theology at all -- or they don't care about Christian theology. For them, Scripture is an interesting cultural phenomenon, worthy of research in its own right. That's a perfectly legitimate aim, but it's almost entirely irrelevant to the question of theological interpretation. I might add that nearly all biblical scholars enjoy the purely intellectual curiosity of our work. That's also valuable, but it's not what we're talking about here.

However, most biblical scholars would insist that professional biblical interpreters should be competent in the broad range of biblical scholarship. That includes historical criticism, and in that sense historical criticism is prior to a finished interpretation. Many Scripture scholars pursue our vocation for theological and spiritual reasons. For us, historical criticism stands in the service of theological interpretation -- but it is a necessary component of the whole process.

We acknowledge that historical analysis is not necessary for theological interpretation. Through the centuries countless Christians have interpreted the Bible -- and with insight! -- apart from theological categories. But for those of us who have the ability to pursue historical questions, historical criticism is a necessary dimension of theological interpretation. I think Fowl has failed to assess the question of priority adequately, even as he raises the larger issue of the aims of interpretation. In other words, for many of us historical criticism is theological, and theological interpretation necessarily historical.

That's enough for now. I'll address Fowl's three criticisms in a later post.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Neglected Passage #1: Romans 16:1-23

My first genuine leather-bound Bible goes back to 1981 or 1982, high school in my case. I read it all the way through a couple of times, highlighter in hand. It's not hard to see where my devotional energy clustered in those days: the Gospel of John is pretty much Technicolor, as is Romans. It's no coincidence that these two New Testament books have influenced Protestant theology -- and piety -- more than any others.

Working from my office now, I can't pull down that old Bible, but I bet Romans 16 didn't get much highlighter ink. It includes a list of greetings and commendations to the church in Rome and from the churches around Corinth. Biblical scholars had tended to overlook the passage too. Indeed, it used to be "common knowledge" that Romans originally ended at 15:33, with chapter 16 tacked on. You can still buy introductions to the book of Romans that fail to discuss chapter 16 in any level of detail.

However, Wayne Meek's classic book, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, marked a sea change. Attempting to sketch a portrait of those first urban communities, Meeks revealed that "throwaway" passages like the beginnings and endings of Paul's letters provide a gold mine of information concerning Christian origins. Feminist theologians have also turned to these passages for fascinating data.

Just three items here.

Women. Contrary to what used to be common knowledge, women figured as leaders and equals in Paul's ministry. While Paul mentions more men than women, his references to women simply assume their authority and contribution to the movement. Phoebe is a deacon, the only deacon mentioned by name in the New Testament. It appears that Phoebe is carrying the letter to Rome, and that Paul authorizes her to request whatever she needs from the church there. Junia is an apostle -- well, she became an apostle in 1989, when translators acknowledged the overwhelming evidence that this apostle was the woman Junia and not the man Junias! With the famous missionary pair Prisca and Aquila, Paul mentions the woman first, which strongly suggests that she was the more prominent of the two (see a similar pattern in Acts). Paul never argues for the authority of these women, as if they needed his permission; he simply assumes it.

Status. Meeks' study extends well beyond Romans, but the references to Gaius and Erastus suggest that the churches included persons of fairly high status. Gaius owns a house big enough for the "whole church" to gather in, while Erastus is the city treasurer. Then we note how Phoebe has been a benefactor (sponsor or patron) to Paul's ministry, while Prisca and Aquila, now resettled in Rome, host a church in their home. (Perhaps Rome had enough Christians to require several congregations.)

Priority. Sometimes people credit (or blame) Paul for "inventing" Christianity. Frankly, that's a stupid notion, which can be easily disproved, but smart people still say it. But notice the reference to Andronicus and Junia, who "were in Christ before I was." Paul did not found the church in Rome. In fact, he'd never visited it. He knew quite a few believers who had preceded him in the faith. We might do better to think of Paul as a partner in ministry rather than as the founder of it.