Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reading Hebrews Theologically

I just submitted a review of the anthology, The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2009). The chapters started out as papers at the 2006 St. Andrews Conference on Scripture and Theology, the second in a series of such events. The first (2003) involved the Gospel of John, and a third (2009) Genesis.

What's special about this book -- and these conferences -- is that it puts biblical scholars in direct conversation with doctrinal theologians. I've heard, from one of the book's editors, that the conversations were sometimes contentious. But the main thing is, this book testifies to the range of ways we might engage the Bible theologically.

I like to think of it as a spectrum.
  • On one end, usually inhabited by biblical scholars, we have the inductive-thematic approach. Here we look at Hebrews with a specific question in mind (the trick is how to identify the right questions), and we sift through Hebrews for passages that relate specifically to that question. A little mixture of historical- and rhetorical-critical analysis might help, too, but basically the approach amounts to gathering the passages, interpreting them, and weighing the evidence. Richard Bauckham's essay on christology provides an example of an excellent scholar doing this sort of work.
  • Theologians might be more comfortable at the other end of the spectrum, with its more tradition-sensitive approach. Here you begin with the "rule of faith" or a doctrinal tradition, bring it to Hebrews, and see how that theological tradition enlightens the text. Bruce McCormack's essay works through key figures in Reformed christology to ask how the death of God's Son relates to God's eternal and unchanging being in Hebrews. Brilliant stuff.
Conflict. Inductive-thematic people are gonna look at the tradition-sensitive ones and say, "You don't even listen to the text; you just impose your doctrine on it. The text has no autonomy with you." In reply, the tradition-sensitive folk will say, "You're so naive, you don't realize that interpretation without presuppositions is impossible. That's why your interpretations don't speak to the life of the church."

But here's the thing. You can't find a "pure" example of either approach in this volume. Both ends of the spectrum, the open-ended curiosity and the tradition-grounded engagement, are necessary for any enlightening interpretation of the Bible. Some of the essays in the volume (John Polkinghorne's, for example), work both ways -- and with insight. That's why I recommend this book -- it demonstrates the variety of approaches to theological interpretation, but it doesn't provide a too-easy answer to our questions.


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