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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Bible, Theology, and Theological Interpretation



Despite perhaps good intentions and sometimes imaginative initiatives, the disciplines of theology and biblical studies have drifted apart. Today, they are hardly on speaking terms, not so much because of deep-seated enmity but because, for all practical purposes, they speak different languages. Within theological schools, although the departments of biblical studies and theological studies may share a relationship of mutual respect and even support one another as representatives of "the classical disciplines," the assumptions and practices they represent are constitutive of different epistemic communities, each regulated by standards of excellence and aims that, generally, are mutually exclusive. Scholars trained according to the accredited standards of the one discipline patrol against the presumed naive or colonizing efforts of the other.

From the side of biblical studies, the consequence of such developments, for some, is the ghettoizing of biblical studies and an identity crisis for practitioners of this discipline. Werner Jeanrond provocatively remarked, "What can the study of the Bible offer to the diverse interests of students late in the twentieth century? What is the contribution of biblical studies to the academy, to society at large and to the different Jewish and Christian communities? In other words, what is the discipline of biblical studies good for these days?" [1]

Biblical scholars often look disapprovingly at systematic theology as an exercise in philosophical abstractions. John Goldingay, for example, thinks of systematic theology as a discipline that emerged in a Greek context, with ideas taking the place of the story of Scripture. Thus, he writes, "If systematic theology did not exist, it might seem unwise to invent it...." [2] Taking the contrary view, theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas remarked to me some years ago, "New Testament scholars ought to be lined up and run off of a cliff!" Whether Hauerwas intended to echo biblical images of Gehenna is unclear to me, but the reverberations were nonetheless sonorous.

How best to model the relation of Scripture to theology? Johann Philipp Gabler inspired the now-pervasive answer more than 200 years ago, when he sketched a three-stage process by which one might move from biblical studies to theology: (1) linguistic and historical analysis of biblical texts; (2) identification of ideas common among the biblical writers; and (3) articulation of the Bible's timeless and universal principles. A hermeneutical commitment to observer neutrality (as opposed to an interpreter guided by doctrinal commitments) emerged—together with an unswerving focus on the historical rootedness of the text, the historicity of events to which the text bears witness, and the historical gap separating text and reader—as key coordinates in the work of interpretation. Consequently, biblical studies were denuded of inherent religious interests; and biblical scholars increasingly saw themselves as philologists and historians rather than theologians. At most, their job would be to describe the theological content or perspective of the biblical materials, leaving to others the constructive and prescriptive theological tasks. Unfortunately, theologians and ethicists must sift through barns of exegetical hay as they search for that rare needle of theological consequence.

An alternative approach recasts biblical studies as an inherently theological enterprise, one that resists the common division of labor that identifies one group (theologians) for its interest in speaking of God in the present tense while insisting that another group (biblical scholars) confine itself to speaking of God only in the past tense. The predominate image would no longer be "building a bridge" from biblical scholarship to ecclesial community, nor "crossing the bridge" from text to sermon, nor journeying from exegesis to biblical theology to systematic theology to ethics. Instead, biblical studies would self-consciously locate itself within the church, just as the church works out its identity and mission in the world. Other ways of engaging the biblical materials might continue, of course. Theological engagement with Scripture has no need to exclude other interpretive agenda, but only insists that reading the Bible as Scripture has its own inherently theological presumptions and protocols.

The sort of work I have in mind for theological engagement in Christian traditions would be marked by such assumptions and approaches as the following:

(1) Theological engagement with Scripture revolves around two theological affirmations—one concerning the Bible, the other concerning the nature of the church. First, theological reading of Scripture takes as its starting point and central axis the theological claim that "the Bible is Scripture," a claim that draws attention to the origin, role, and aim of these texts in God's self-communication. It thus locates those who read the Bible as Scripture on a particular textual map, a location possessing its own assumptions, values, and norms for guiding and animating particular beliefs, dispositions, and practices constitutive of that people. Second, concerning the church, theological engagement with Scripture takes seriously the claim that the church is "one." Consequently, the texts that constitute the Bible were traditioned, written, and preserved by the same people of God now faced with the task of appropriating and embodying its message; this is the same community that received this collection of texts as canon; and this is the very community to which these texts were and are addressed. That is, we locate "the meaning" of Scripture not in the distant past in a far-away land, but in the community of God's people, past, present, and future. As James McClendon deftly insisted, "The present Christian community is the primitive community and the eschatological community." [3]

(2) The pivotal question is what it means to make sense of this ancient text. Critical forms of modern exegesis construe this question above all in terms of historical distance: how to span the chasm between our worlds and the strange world of the Bible. The hermeneutical task thus requires the scholar to enter that world like a pioneer, subdue the text, and bring back its meaning, now transformed, domesticated for our world. Theological interpretation focuses elsewhere, on the degree to which we share (or refuse) the theological vision of the biblical text and in terms of our disposition to "stand under" (or to defy) the Scriptures—that is, with reference to our practices of engaging with Scripture in the context of our commitment to live faithfully (or not) before the God to whom the Scriptures witness. Therefore, such dispositions and practices as attention, acceptance, devotion, and trust characterize theological interpretation.

(3) This does not mean that reading the Bible theologically requires apathy concerning historical questions, as though the last two centuries of a biblical scholarship characterized by its orientation toward historical issues were unimportant or unnecessary. Quite the contrary, we have learned that attention to historical questions may serve to shield the text from domestication or objectification by the reader, by working to allow the text its own voice from within its own sociocultural horizons. We recognize that these texts are present to us as cultural products that draw on, actualize, propagate, and/or undermine the contexts within which they were generated. Thus, the aim of historical work shifts from the discovery of meaning embedded in or behind the text to enabling the text its robust voice as a subject (rather than an object) in theological discourse.

(4) For theological work, the horizons of interpretation of these texts include the particularity of the ecclesial community. This means that the measure of validity for Christian theological interpretation cannot be taken apart from the great creeds of the church, a concern with the Rule of Faith, and the history of Christian interpretation and its embodiment in Christian lives and communities. This does not mean that the now-traditional categories of systematic theology must govern the meaning of these texts, much less that the aim of theological interpretation would be to generate and organize faith claims. Theological reading is concerned, rather, with putting into play (or facilitating the performance of) the witness of Scripture. We do not invite the text into a transformation of its original meaning into a new application geared toward our thought forms; rather, the text invites us into a transformation of allegiances and commitments, which will manifest itself in Scripture-shaped practices.

(5) Finally, what of "method"? Given the modern fascination with technique, it is important to note that no particular method can guarantee a reading of the Bible as Scripture. Nevertheless, some methods are more hospitable to theological reading than others. In addition to approaches that situate the voice of Scripture sociohistorically, of special interest in theological study of the Bible in Christian communities of faith are modes of analysis that take seriously the generally narrative content of Scripture; the theological unity of Scripture, which takes its point of departure from the character and purpose of the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ, and which gives rise to the historical unity of Scripture as the narrative of that purpose being worked out in the cosmos; and the final form and canonical location of the biblical texts.

Joel B. Green is Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Asbury Theological Seminary.

Notes

[1] Werner G. Jeanrond, "After Hermeneutics: The Relationship between Theology and Biblical Studies," in The Open Text: New Directions for Biblical Studies? (ed. Francis Watson; London: SCM, 1993) 85-102.



[2] John Goldingay, "Biblical Narrative and Systematic Theology," in Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (ed. Joel B. Green and Max Turner; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm.B. Eerdmans, 2000) 123-42 (138).



[3] James Wm. McClendon Jr., Systematic Theology, vol. 1: Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986) 31.

Citation: Joel B. Green, " The Bible, Theology, and Theological Interpretation," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=308

 
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