Saturday, August 29, 2009

Stephen Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture entry 1

When you encounter the phrase "the theological interpretation of Scripture," you might think nothing of it. After all, isn't most biblical interpretation theological? That is, doesn't most biblical interpretation occur among people and communities of faith, in an effort to find inspiration, understanding, guidance, comfort, you name it? Obviously, there are other ways to read the Bible, including reading the Bible for pure intellectual interest, but who would doubt that most of the Bible reading being done in the world is profoundly "theological"?

Nevertheless, the past couple of decades have witnessed the emergence of a movement calling itself "the theological interpretation of Scripture." It's a broad movement, and I hesitate to offer a list of its key proponents. Nevertheless, as Stephen E. Fowl points out, it is a movement, complete with sections of academic societies, major publication series and reference books, an academic journal, and so on.

What marks "the theological interpretation of Scripture," then, isn't that it's theological; rather, the movement is defined by its self-consciousness as an intellectual, largely academic, movement and by its particular take on what is -- and isn't -- proper theological interpretation. Fowl attempts to present the broad contours of the movement, with an emphasis on his particular point of view. That's entirely appropriate, and I think her performs this valuable task admirably.

At the same time, there are some things about the "theological interpretation" movement that I'd like to challenge in the interest of promoting a broader and more inclusive approach to theological interpretation (without quotes). I'll offer my thoughts as responses to Fowl, which is particularly convenient. I have read other "theological interpretation" advocates, but not enough to to comment on the movement with authority.

Fowl advocates "Christian interpretation of Scripture as a type of theology" (xiv), and I agree. In the church we interpret Scripture as one practice -- among others -- by which we grow in grace. This does not establish a hierarchy of academic disciplines, as if "theology" were prior to biblical interpretation or history, but it does situate biblical interpretation within the flow of Christian life and community. Amen.

I might add here that for years I've wondered if "biblical scholars" -- that is, people like myself with PhDs in biblical studies from research universities -- were the best people to teach Bible in seminaries. Almost every Christian community has decided that is the case, but why trust secular universities with the task of training these people? What if churches and seminaries developed their own criteria for training instructors in biblical interpretation? What would that look like? (I might note here that there are very few seminary jobs in biblical studies, so such programs would necessarily be small.)

Fowl's basic emphasis in chapter 1 is to establish an understanding of Scripture is that Scripture is a primary means by which God has chosen to reveal God's self to humankind. In chapter 2 Fowl suggests that theological interpretation should be guided by two principles, "ever deeper communion with God and neighbor" (taken from the Great Commandment) and the ancient "rule of faith" (to which Augustine appealed, and which may be summarized in the creed).

I have no real disagreement with Fowl on these two accounts. If we take the Bible as a gift from God, and if our faith calls us to pursue love of God and neighbor, then it's entirely appropriate to seek communion with God and greater love through our engagement with Scripture. But what implications does Fowl draw from these principles?

For one thing, Fowl maintains that "Scripture reveals all that believers need to sustain a life of growing communion with God and each other" (10). I'm a familiar claim; many have claimed that Scripture is "sufficient" for the life of faith. One might be picky and suggest that we believers could also benefit from other sources of insight, but let's go with a more narrow take on Fowl's claim. Surely the basics of our lives may find grounding in Scripture.

But. What Fowl doesn't do -- and what other "theological interpretation" advocates rarely do -- is acknowledge that the Bible also sets up some problems for us. Fowl recognizes that the Bible is a human document and that it's grounded in its own cultural contexts. But how do we engage Judges on genocide, Revelation on the desire for vengeance, Matthew and John on "the Jews," the pseudo-Paulines on the subordination of women and slaves? By what criteria do we respond to these issues?

Like Fowl, Augustine would have invoked the "rule of faith." By that, Augustine meant (as best I understand him) that when the plain meaning of Scripture doesn't promote love, we should look for other levels of meaning. That is, "the" meaning of Scripture does not always relate to its plain meaning.

Well, we're modern people, and that's not good enough. Problematic as it is, "plain meaning" and the historical use (and abuse) of Scripture matter to us. I would pose this hard question to Fowl. Why is it the case that his works cited includes (by my count) exactly one woman and (so far as I'm aware) no modern people of color? Do "theological interpretation" sessions at academic meetings draw significantly from underrepresented groups? Perhaps the failure to address "problematic" dimensions of Scripture has something to do with the composition of the "theological interpretation" movement, as both symptom and cause?

Next time I'll reflect on how theological interpretation and historical approaches to scripture relate to one another. That'll keep us in chapter 2.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Coming Soon: Stephen E. Fowl on Theological Interpretation of Scripture

We're near the end of our series on neglected passages, and I'd like to invite readers to check out an important new book: Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Cascade, 2009). Checking in at just 75 pages, plus back matter, and $13.00, this little book would be great for discussion groups, pastors, and seminarians. The folks at Cascade/Wipf & Stock were kind enough to forward a review copy, and I'll be engaging it chapter by chapter over the coming weeks. So if you'd like to read along, please do so!

I'm only a little way into the book, but here's my hunch. My overall disposition toward Fowl's work is overwhelmingly positive, but my replies will emphasize points of divergence, critique, and refinement -- all aimed toward expanding the category of theological interpretation and inviting others to participate.

Beyond Fowl's book, I've also committed to review BibleWorks 8.0 (at a basic user level, not a technical level) and N. T. Wright's Justification.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Neglected Passages #2: Revelation 5:1-13

If we're gonna talk about neglected passages, pretty much anything in Revelation would do, apart from 666 and Armageddon. Revelation 5:1-13 offers one of the most captivating image plays in all of the Bible, and it's often -- and unfortunately overlooked. This passage is key to understanding Revelation as a whole.

The setup is this. John has ascended into heaven, where "the one seated upon the throne" -- that's God in apocalyptic literature -- holds a sealed scroll. As we'll soon find out, the scroll will relate the unfolding of human history; its contents pretty much amount to the rest of the book of Revelation. John "weeps bitterly" because no one is able -- or worthy -- to unseal the scroll.

Then one of the heavenly elders speaks up: the Lion of Judah has conquered, qualifying him to open the seals. Good news! A fierce lion to take up the cause! Up to this point Revelation has been all about conquest, enduring the forces of evil despite the churches' evident weakness, despite persecution. What these vulnerable little communities of Jesus followers need is a lion. The Lion is worthy....

So John looks for the Lion, and you know what? There ain't no Lion. No Lion ever appears in Revelation. In its place stands a Lamb "standing as if it had been slaughtered." The Lamb is worthy to unseal the scrolls because the through its death it has redeemed a people. Through its faithful witness (1:5), the Lamb has demonstrated its worth.

Throughout the rest of Revelation, we'll see the Lamb. No Lion, but the Lamb. The point? In the face of overwhelming imperial pressure ("Who is like the Beast, and who can fight against it?" 13:4), in the face of ostracism and persecution, God rules not by Lion Power but by Lamb Power. Faithful witness, endurance, boundless love. Those win the day. Lamb Power, not Lion Power.

How I wish communities of faith would soak this in.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Neglected Passages #3: Paul's Gospel (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10)

Early one semester I thought I was posing a rhetorical question, the kind you throw into a lecture to set up another point: What was Paul's gospel? Immediately a hand shot up from the back left of the classroom, so I called upon the student. "Justification by grace through faith!"

This interchange created an awkward moment for me. Clearly this student had been formed by the dominant church tradition on the interpretation of Paul, a venerable heritage that goes back through Calvin and Luther even to Augustine. However, like most interpreters of Paul I don't think that's the answer to the question. Even more important, I think the question is more important than most of our attempts to answer it. I try to avoid undermining students in front of their peers, but this student's direct answer required something. I think I said, "That's one of the most popular answers to this question. At the same time, we have an entire semester to pursue the question itself. Let's see how things go."

If any passage in the Pauline letters "gives away" Paul's gospel, it's probably 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. Paul's gospel was his proclamation of what God has done in Christ. First Thessalonians is probably the oldest of Paul's letters available to us, and the first half of the book is devoted to reminiscences of Paul's first encounters in Thessalonica. In other words, in 1 Thessalonians we have our earliest record of what Paul's ministry was about, albeit through Paul's skilled rhetorical handiwork.

Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the reputation they earned during his visit: "how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead -- Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming" (1:9b-10).

This looks very much like a summary of Paul's core message. It is essentially a story, not a doctrinal formulation, and it features four parts.
  1. The God of Israel has broken into history, inviting Gentiles into God's people. (Paul is clearly talking about Gentiles, who turn from idols to serve a living and true God. That's how a Jew would have referred to Gentile converts.)
  2. God's intervention comes in the person of Jesus Christ.
  3. God has raised God's Son from the dead.
  4. Those who await Christ's return will be delivered from end-time calamity. (Whether "the wrath that is coming" refers to end-time chaos, a final judgment, or both, I'm not sure.)
Liturgical churches recite a version of this proclamation every time they take the Lord's Supper: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." It's essentially a rehearsal of the Jesus story, presupposing the memory of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and return.

Why do I suggest this proclamation is close to Paul's gospel, rather than the familiar "justification by grace through faith"? All of Paul's letters feature the same gospel story, but only some emphasize salvation by grace through faith. Among the seven "undisputed" letters of Paul, those all scholars affirm as coming from the apostle himself, only two really articulate the "justification by grace through faith" formula. Both of them, Galatians and Romans, address the problem of how Jews and Gentiles could live together in the church. (Though probably not written by Paul, Ephesians features the same concerns: salvation [rather than justification] by grace through faith, combined with the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles.)

It seems that "justification by grace through faith" emerged not out of Paul's core gospel proclamation but from a pastoral concern: how Jews and Gentiles could live together as one body. That's not to deny justification's importance. It's critical to both theology and piety. Sometimes pastoral crises, even conflicts, generate the most important insights.

Just the same, Paul's gospel proclamation was probably a story about Jesus Christ and how God has broken into history to create a renewed people. Paul may have told the story in diverse ways in diverse contexts. Surely he applied it with flexibility. But his core message was a story about God and Jesus Christ.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Follow-Up: Teaching the Bible

I posted the previous topic both here and on Facebook, soliciting comments from lots of diverse people. The basic questions were, for Bible profs, How does your classroom teaching compare with what you received as an undergraduate or (if applicable) seminarian?, and for non-profs, Looking back at your education, how do you wish you'd been taught?

What kind of feedback came in? My post is a little long, but the major conclusions are at the bottom of this post. Pat McCullough also posted a thoughtful reply on his own blog.

Among the professors, comments included the following (I'll include a note about how widely shared the senitment was.)
  • Several of us have moved away from teaching students "stuff they should know" to helping them grow develop their skills and confidence as interpreters in their own right. Students are still encouraged to consult other voices and opinions, but the mode of teaching emphasizes the process of discovery rather than a passive reception of information.
  • Textbooks received some interest. One instructor assigns multiple textbooks, so that no one voice dominates the class. (I've done that in a variety of ways in most of my intro courses.) Another uses a course pack or online files. (Yep. Me, too.)
  • Several of us raised questions of ethics, politics, and identity. Most who so commented are persons of color. (I also share this concern, though I'm never satisfied with my own work here.)
  • A couple of people commented on the prospects and perils of integrating technology with pedagogy. (Yep. Uh-huh.)
  • A few of us require significant exegesis projects that come in multiple stages. (I call this an "interpretive essay.")
  • One person moved away from trying to cover the canon to helping students engage a set of themes. I think this decision has to do with achieving depth of engagement and cultivating the students' own interpretive voices, over against a relatively shallow "survey" of the canon.
  • One person mentioned critical pedagogy (hooks, Brookfield, Vella). I think I'll work with Broofield's Critical Incident Questionnaire this semester. This practice also includes a measure of self-disclosure on the part of the instructor.
  • One respondent prefers small class sizes.
  • One respondent engaged the question of sensitivity in dealing with topics that will challenge students' faith.
  • One respondent emphasized the instructor's continuing growth and engagement with the material. (I never use the same syllabus twice, though certain parts have lasted 10 years.)
From seminary graduates several comments came in.
  • Especially important was helping students cultivate their own interpretive practices rather than be passive recipients of wisdom. Both groups shared this cluster.
  • One respondent emphasized relevance for ministry, how to take biblical studies out into the parish and the world.
  • One respondent desired more contemporary modes of interpretation (not just the historical critical approaches I received in seminary).
  • One respondent emphasized the personal engagement of the instructor as a key element in their effectiveness.
  • What about diversity in the faculty? One Latina, Laura Cardena (thanks for permission), noted that she had never studied from a Latino/Latina professor. Another (white male) would prefer more theological and methodological diversity from faculty in his education.
  • Clearly, the strongest point of emphasis involved educating people to perform their own interpretive work (in conversation with other readers, of course), rather than educating people to remember a bunch of stuff.
  • Diverse questions of diversity (I meant to write that) come in with an emphasis: diverse opinions, diverse traditions, diverse methods, diverse theological sensibilities, diverse identities, you name it.
  • The role and investment of the instructor figured prominently in the conversation.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hey, NT Profs: A Question for You

Having returned from both Thailand and Alabama, both of which require visas, I'll be returning to the neglected passages list before long. For now, though, I'd like to follow up on a discussion I had with a friend. He related something he recently learned that he does not remember from seminary, and I replied.

There's a huge gap between what I learned in seminary and how I teach today.

Thus, my question to other biblical studies instructors: How does your classroom teaching compare with what you received as an undergraduate or (if applicable) seminarian?

If you don't teach, a different question: Looking back at your education, how do you wish you'd been taught?