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.

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