Wednesday, May 27, 2009

More on Theological Interpretation

Christopher Spinks has been kind enough to respond to the blog post on "Theological Interpretation of Scripture." Replying to another blogger, Seth Heringer, Christopher rightly denies that theological interpretation is an academic discipline and that professional biblical scholars should rule the day in biblical interpretation.

Christopher then turns to my blog, where I wrote, "I’m not convinced the [theological interpretation] movement has fully faced the complications implied in the questions it is asking," and he asks what questions do I have in mind. Well, a few -- if he'll indulge me in a few generalizations. I'm not active in the movement, and I don't know the range of works he does. I'll really stick with one question, answered in multiple ways in the theological interpretation movement. These answers stand in complementary, not competitive, relationship to one another.

The question: "What kind of book is the Bible?"

Several folks in the movement recommend we should read scripture primarily as story. While I'm sympathetic to that point of view, strongly so, this model opens the path for all sorts of questions. Scot McKnight, for example, tells us what the story is in The Blue Parkeet. But surely the Bible resists such reduction and essentializing. The Bible tells many stories, woven into and against one another. While I'm willing to talk about how all the stories relate to a big story, I would insist that we'll never arrive at consensus on what that one story is. Well, creation and redemption, perhaps. But that's not the whole of scripture by any means. So the question, "What kind of book is the Bible?" opens the way to lots of questions, not a single answer.

Another item. Christopher refers to the Bible as "divine discourse." I have to admit, I have no earthly idea what that means. Does it mean God is the ultimate source of the Bible? God is the ultimate source of everything. Does it mean God spoke directly through the authors? Well, I don't buy that. What does it mean? May I suggest that this answer to the "What kind of book" question tends to locate the Bible's significance in the past?

I'm fully aware that's not what Christopher means. He clearly believes God continues to speak through scripture. But would it not be better not to link the "divine" bit to the text but to the process to which the church testifies down the ages? Isn't "Bible" here shorthand for something wonderful that happens when people read the Bible? And if that's what it means, what about the awful things that also happen when people read the Bible? More questions from the one question.

Finally, several theological interpretation authors claim that God is the Bible's subject matter. Another essentialist reduction of the question, "What kind of book is the Bible?" Again, are we talking about the text of the Bible, its authors, or our tradition and practice of reading it? If we mean either of the first two, the claim that the Bible is "about" God falls flat in front of the evidence. Often it is about God; often it's about politics, ethnicity, sex, and so forth. We might step back and say the Bible situates all those things in the context of God, but one might as easily reply that the Bible also appeals to God as a pretext for some of those conversations. And if we mean that God is the subject of our reading of the Bible -- that is, that we read the Bible in search for God -- then, no, I don't accept that. I dearly expect to encounter God in the practice of reading scripture. But that's not the only question I have. It's not helpful to prescribe reading in that way.

The gist of my overall reply is to say this. Our generalizations about the Bible emerge from our desire to find some essential essence for the Bible. I often share that desire; sometimes I don't. Therefore, I resist any attempt to define the Bible's essence in the process of defining theological interpretation. I prefer a more open, more pragmatic, approach, as spelled out earlier: theological interpretation of the Bible happens when people of faith engage scripture in the praxis of living the life of faith and in the context of the broader historical and global church.

And I fully apologize for referring to Christopher by the surname Sparks.


Chris Spinks said...

Greg, thanks for the new post. There is a lot here that deserves further attention. Right now I have but one quick question. When you say "theological interpretation of the Bible happens when people of faith engage scripture...," toward what end(s) are these people of faith engaging scripture? That is, why do they feel the need to engage this particular set of texts and not another?

Luke said...

i really enjoy reading both parts of this conversation and it struck me reading this that our attempt to define the bible.. that is to put labels on it like "classic literature, infallable, inerrant, etc." is a means of power and control.

the bible resists these attempts. to say it's Christological from start to finish misses and superceeds the Jewish tradition and history. to say it's infallable means it is sort of a diction of answers and misses the challenges and questions it askes and doesn't answer.

to name and label is a power move. i'm not ready to do that on so great a collection of theological work found in the bible.

Chris Spinks said...

Luke, I am no basher of postmodernism, so I tread lightly here when I question your "labeling" of the bible as a resistor of labels. As many philosophers of language will attest, we cannot think about or conceptualize without language, without some naming or labeling. We have to have a name or label to talk about anything. What those names and labels transcribe is open to discussion.

Luke said...

"We have to have a name or label to talk about anything. What those names and labels transcribe is open to discussion."

absolutely. it's an "open-handed" approach.. a "both/and" sort of deal, not an "either/or" or close-fisted (he says, setting up an either/or dictomy). language is a tricky thing and we're mired in pre-assumptions it brings.

but i think that the bible isn't just one thing, it's a whole slew of things! various considerations, assumptions, and theological points of view. to use just one label i.e. inerrant, infallible, literature, misses the whole point.

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