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.


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