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Each semester I require students in my Hebrew Bible/Old Testament courses to write an exegetical paper on a passage of their own choosing. I am inclined to think the format of the paper would not differ significantly from those required at other institutions, with the possible exception being the concluding portion. I ask students to consider possible theological implications of the text. How should this text be appropriated theologically? How does this passage contribute to the theological voice of the book? How does it relate to the remainder of the canon? In essence, the students are asked to move from biblical exegesis to theological construction.

The students typically carry out the exegetical work with great care. They have researched, perhaps even overly so, a given text. They proffer the insights of seasoned scholars, typically noting the critical issues pertinent to the text. Yet when the students move to theological construction, there is a noticeable shift—a shift from tedious attention to inchoate formulation.

I have often attributed their amorphous theological reflections to lassitude—they have completed the exegetical portion with grinding exactness, and there is little energy to expend on theological construction. I have become convinced, however, that their failure to reflect theologically has very little to do with lethargy or apathy. In striking fashion, their papers merely mimic the work often carried out in biblical studies—exegesis carried out with great precision, often with nominal attention given to theological construction. Such works demonstrate the complex relationship (or lack thereof) between biblical studies and theological construction.

Reading with Wrede

The difficulty in moving from biblical studies to theological construction is not the result of scholarly incompetence to be sure. Rather such difficulty stems from the perception of disciplinal autonomy. Although most treatments of biblical theology begin with Johann Gabler's essay in 1787, it was arguably the influence of Wilhelm Wrede that marked a decisive turn in the history of biblical interpretation and the division of its tasks. [1] Wrede, drawing upon Immanuel Kant's concern for proper disciplinary boundaries within the University, suggested that New Testament theology be concerned only with the "religion" of the first Christians, as construed through historical inquiry. Any form of constructive theology was not within the purview of such a discipline. In essence, the task was meant to be descriptive and not prescriptive. In a frequently cited quote from Wrede's statement on New Testament theology, the delineation between tasks is abundantly clear:

Biblical theology has to investigate something from given documents& It tries to grasp it as objectively, correctly, and sharply as possible. That is all. How the systematic theologian gets on with its results and deals with them—that is his own affair. Like every other science, New Testament theology has its goal simply in itself, and is totally indifferent to all dogma and systematic theology. [2]

The bifurcated vision cast by Wrede has produced numerous repercussions, but two are deserving of note here. First, this initial delineation between disciplines has led to what Stephen Fowl describes as "the fragmentation of theology into a set of discrete activities: biblical studies, systematics, historical theology, practical theology and so forth." [3] Such fragmentation continues within the confines of each discipline. Scholars may move within the sub-disciplines of their chosen field, but rarely do scholars move across disciplinary boundaries. The vision cast by Wrede now pervades the academic study of religion—disciplinal autonomy is now perceived as a strength.

Second, the vision cast by Wrede suggests that biblical theology (and presumably biblical studies in general) can only be occupied with historical inquiry, guided by reason, and free from subjective judgments. In some sense, then, the activity of the biblical scholar is relegated to a descriptive, non-normative task. [4]

When I read the papers of my students, I feel as though I am still reading with Wrede. They appear unable to move beyond the descriptive, non-normative task. They have entered into the discrete activity of biblical studies, and they appear unable to cross the disciplinary boundary into theological construction.

Reading Theologically

The effects of Wrede's differentiation are clearly evident in the subsequent history of biblical studies. The history of the discipline has clearly sided with an approach to biblical studies that demands a historical-critical reading of the text "apparently absent" of subjective coloring.

The dominance of the historical-critical methodology and its shortcomings have been the object of many "straw-man" arguments, and I have no intention of constructing a similar argument here. The question is not whether historical-critical methods are valid, but whether theological construction is also valuable. Many biblical scholars are quick to offer an affirmative to the first question, and rather taciturn in their response to the second.

In Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, Stephen Fowl sets forth a promising proposal for reading Scripture theologically. Fowl suggests there are three models for interpreting the biblical text: determinate interpretation, anti-determinate interpretation, and underdetermined interpretation. [5] Determinate interpretation stresses that each biblical text has a meaning placed there by the authors, redactors, or subsequent interpretative communities. The primary task of the interpreter then is to "dig out, uncover, or distill the meaning of the text." [6] Such an approach represents, in general terms, the aims and concerns of historical criticism. Once meaning has been mined from the appropriate text the task at hand, if we are to follow Wrede's proposal, is presumably complete.

Anti-determinate interpretation is associated with deconstructionism, and most notably, Jacques Derrida. As Fowl explains, such an approach involves two stages: constructing the dominant interpretation of a text and then using the "fissures and cracks" in that interpretation to open the text to further interpretations. In particular, this approach seeks to deconstruct the dominant position, undermining what has been traditionally construed as the "meaning of the text." Recent trends in biblical scholarship, particularly those that have followed more "post-modern" approaches, have utilized this interpretive approach. This model does offer a version of "interpretative plurality," as Fowl suggests, but does interpretative plurality, as generated through an anti-determinate interpretation, necessarily yield theological construction? Fowl argues in the negative.

The final model of interpretation proffered by Fowl is underdetermined meaning. According to Fowl, such a model recognizes the plurality of interpretive practices without granting epistemological primacy to any of them. Whereas the determinate model invokes the notion of "textual meaning" and anti-determinate readings offer a deconstruction of such meaning, the underdetermined meaning model offers an alternative—or perhaps a more expansive—model for the theological interpretation of Scripture.

According to Fowl, searching for underdetermined meanings is synonymous with a theological interpretation of Scripture. Although Fowl distinguishes between biblical theology and theological interpretation, significant voices in the discipline, such as Brevard S. Childs and Francis Watson, still insist that such a model is "biblical theology," albeit in a manner different from that which has been historically conceived. [7] Despite the difference in nomenclature, similarities in approach are shared.

All three scholars have observed the contributive value of historical critical study in understanding the biblical text. Rather than conceding that such an approach yields "the" meaning of the text, however, Fowl prefers to suggest that such historical criticism assists in discovering the "author's communicative intentions." [8] Yet interpretation cannot end at this point. Theological construction remains a necessary step in the interpretive process. Any attempt at theological construction demands continued reflection on the relationship between the sacred texts and those who read them as such. Fowl offers three guiding principles for those committed to constructing a model of theological interpretation. While Fowl's approach is confessional in nature, and more particularly, Christian in orientation, his methodology in general would be compatible with Jewish interpretation.

(1) Such a model will be interested in pre-modern biblical interpretation, but not simply for the sake of historical preservation. As Brian Daley has noted, attention to pre-modern biblical interpretation can "recapture an understanding of interpretation's own role within the church and of its centrally theological task as reading, not just texts, but sacred and normative texts, texts that relate to the overarching story of Jewish and Christian faiths." [9]

(2) Such a model will shape and be shaped by the concerns of communities seeking to live faithfully before God, rather than by the concerns of a discipline whose chief allegiance is to the academy.

(3) Such a model will "reject and resist the fragmentation of theology into a set of discrete disciplines that was the result of the conceptual aims of modernity and the practical result of professionalization." [10]

In some sense, a theologically interpretive method as proposed above proves an anathema to interpreters who seek a more positivistic model of interpretation (rooted primarily in the chief tenets of rationalism). [11] But theological interpretation does more than simply offer a mediating position. It emboldens faith communities to reclaim the normative value of their sacred texts, without restricting meaning to the sole question of what a text "meant" (i.e., Stendahl). Further, such a model for interpretation indicates how the biblical texts have been and are continuing to be construed and incarnated within the communities that embrace those texts.

Reading Texts—Thinking Theologically

In some contexts, a theologically interpretive method may not be considered appropriate or germane to the present course of study. But for those, like myself, who teach in an openly confessional setting, these are issues of paramount importance. Most of my colleagues have been trained in settings that reinforce disciplinal autonomy. As a result, when we teach Old Testament or New Testament, we feel compelled to rehearse the chief contributions of the historical-critical method. Theological construction, we would like to believe, would be a by-product of the historical investigation. But as I indicated above, one does not naturally follow the other.

This fall I will be teaching an Old Testament course that I have taught several times before. In addition to offering the rudimentary historical-critical information, I am planning ways for my students to think theologically about texts. In addition to using one of the standard introductions to the Hebrew Bible, we will also be reading sermons by Karl Barth, Martin Luther, John Calvin and others. We will read excerpts from Augustine's commentary on the Psalms and Theoderet's work on the Prophets. Admittedly, we will be reading texts that are not part of the critical movement—but they are texts that are part of their confessional movement. They are examples of individuals who have read the biblical texts and attempted a theological construction.

In the end, my desire is to teach students to read texts carefully and to think about these texts theologically. To be sure, the contributions of critical study are invaluable to this process, but left in isolation, they may result in a dearth of theological analysis. Reconnecting students to the history of biblical interpretation and offering them opportunities to transcend disciplinary boundaries may rekindle the imaginative fire necessary for true theological interpretation and communal appropriation.

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Christian Scriptures at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary.


[1] Wrede explicated his concerns most acutely in "The Tasks and Methods of 'New Testament Theology.'" The article has been reprinted in a collection by Robert Morgan (The Nature of New Testament Theology [London: SCM, 1973], 68-116).

[2] Wrede, "The Tasks and Methods of 'New Testament Theology,'" 116.

[3] Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

[4] Ben C. Ollenburger, "What Krister Stendahl 'Meant'—A Normative Critique of 'Descriptive Biblical Theology,'" HBT 8 (1986): 61-98.

[5] Fowl, Engaging Scripture, especially 32-62.

[6] Fowl, Engaging Scripture, 34.

[7] See Francis Watson, Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), and Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992). See also Childs, "Towards Recovering a Theological Exegesis," Pro Ecclesia 6 (1997): 16-26.

[8] Fowl, Engaging Scripture, 58.

[9] Brian E. Daley, "Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable?," in The Art of Reading Scripture, eds. Ellen Davis and Richard Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 87.

[10] Stephen E. Fowl, "Introduction," in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Stephen E. Fowl (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), xvi.

[11] See the helpful analysis of Alvin Plantinga, "Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship," Modern Theology 14 (1998): 243-278.

Citation: W. Dennis Tucker, Jr., " From Biblical Exegesis to Theological Construction: Reflections on Methodology," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2004]. Online:


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