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.


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