The End

We didn’ close out every single last one of the editor’s queries — we can do that tonight, probably, or tomorrow afternoon. I did finish the preface, which I’ll put in the extended section.

The chapters of this book approach this multimodal differential hermeneutics with various points of emphasis, along various trajectories. Each chapter sets out to clarify a particular puzzle relevant to understanding the transition away from modern technical interpretation to a hermeneutic that better fits a more interactive, flexible approach to meaning. Written over the course of fifteen years, they begin from a critical interrogation of what was once the prevalent theoretical background for New Testament theology and gradually stake out a staging area for articulating a sounder approach to the theological interpretation of the Bible.
The first chapter considers the relation between modern biblical scholarship and the goal of a satisfying theological interpretation of Scripture. Many readers of the Bible report a certain disorientation when they turn to the study of biblical theology. They may have learned well the academic modes of criticism that form the basis of contemporary biblical interpretation, and they may feel a strong interest in how the Bible informs subsequent theological reflection, but the most prominent texts in biblical theology offer something very different from the wisdom which these readers seek. A reader who turns to a biblical theology book in hope of learning the biblical precedents for Trinitarian formulas is more likely to encounter a historical survey of the discipline of biblical theology itself, and programmatic reflections on how biblical theology should be done. Often as not, both the history and the program baffle the reader. So the interested reader’s hermeneutical vigor dissipates in thickets of dense disciplinary undergrowth. The miscarriage of one program leads to proposals for another, and this new alternative requires historical perspective in order to justify its claims, and which in turn baffles a new set of readers.
This essay proposes that the definitions by which biblical theology and New Testament theology establish their disciplinary identity include elements that correspond to the axiomatic assumptions of modern culture. In particular, the practitioners in these fields so defined their disciplines as to put a premium on the presumed “scientific” character of the knowledge they produce. They show a proclivity for according greater weight to the most recent studies of their topics, in keeping with the modern ideology of progress (as though sound understanding of the New Testament had only dawned in the most recent decade). Accordingly, New Testament theologians emphasize the vast historical gap between the ancient New Testament context and the contemporary scene, a gap that requires the mediating expertise of a historical scholar; from this point of view, the generations of interpreters between Paul and this morning constitute more of an obstacle to understanding the Scriptures than they provide links to a living tradition of interpretation. The modern theological interpreter rejects these readers of Scripture as “precritical,” since they do not conform to the same criteria that the modern scholar regards as necessary. Modern biblical theology withholds its approval from any mode of interpretation that does not submit to adjudication at the bar of historical scholarship – but this chapter holds open the possibility that biblical theology may have durable claims to legitimacy that do not depend on strictly modern assumptions about time, progress, and the unique validity of historical-critical analysis. The strongest ventures in biblical theology demonstrate insight and critical judgment that draws on historical-critical scholarship, but which cannot be limited to the horizons that circumscribe modern technical conventions of reading.*1*
The second chapter confronts one of the most common rationales for assigning historical-critical analysis the authority to adjudicate questions of interpretive legitimacy. The historian, it is argued, brings to light the historical actuality of Jesus’ identity, so that any other approach to studying Jesus displaces his fully human character in favor of a theological phantasm (the christological error of “docetism”). This defense of historical-critical authority, however, misconstrues the results of technical historical scholarship and misreads the (historical) character of docetism. Careful study of the topic of docetism in its patristic context and in its contemporary manifestations reveals an elusive complex of tendencies and inclinations, no one of which can be remedied by historical scholarship. Nor indeed can technical scholarship produce an anti-docetic, concretely human Jesus on its own; historical research into Jesus produces an academic construct (as opposed, perhaps, to a devotional construct), but the academic construct does not automatically count as more fully incarnate than its devotional alternative. The opposite of docetism is not certified historical scholarship, but a resolutely Chalcedonian christology.
The third chapter takes up the problem of subsistent meaning and textual agency. If, as I argue, texts do not possess characteristics that promote or resist various interpretations, can one simply make a text mean anything one chooses? By no means! Our interactions with texts and the interpretations we offer always involve social and environmental mediation. Communities of interpreters approve or discountenance proposed interpretations according to criteria that constitute the community: technical interpreters according to criteria of academic scholarship, congregations of faithful believers according to the rule of their faith, and enthusiastic consumers of sensation according to the headlines of supermarket tabloids. Mortal readers have no access to immutable laws of interpretation by which we can, with God’s perspective on meaning, adjudicate interpretive legitimacy, but we cannot escape participation in complex interactions that provide ample basis for evaluating interpretations; we can only “make texts mean whatever we want” if we are willing to abide the consequences of alienating everyone who deems our readings nonsensical. When we emphasize our own accountability for the interpretations we propose (rather than invoking transcendent laws of interpretation whose application always remains contested in particular cases), we open up a strong connection between our hermeneutics and the ethics we proclaim and practice.
The fourth chapter pursues the question of meaning and ethics with particular reference to the Gospel of Matthew’s invective against Jesus’ rivals and enemies. While critics have denounced Matthew as “anti-Jewish,” this chapter argues that an ethically sound reading (in the sense set out above) should promote a different view of Matthew and his theology. There is not, in other words, an anti-Jewish meaning subsisting in Matthew’s Gospel. Our readings of Matthew have benign or baneful effects on our neighbors, Gentile and Jewish, but it’s up to us to articulate interpretations for which we are willing to stand accountable. After all, Matthew’s Gospel quotes many very harsh words Jesus directed against Gentiles, and instructs disciples to uphold the entire Torah; if Matthew himself was Jewish, and he deplored rival visions of how Judaism should be constituted, his polemics should be treated as “anti-Pharisaism” or as intra-Judaic controversy rather than as anti-Judaism. Finally, I appeal to the historical experience of the great crisis of the mid-twentieth century, to show that the ideologues of Nazi anti-Semitism specifically rejected the Gospel of Matthew as unsuitable for their propaganda purposes, whereas some of the Protestants who risked their lives to save Jewish refugees acted on the distinctively Matthean basis that whoever offered aid or shelter one of the least of Jesus’ sisters and brothers, did so to him. While Christians have certainly drawn on Matthean texts to justify their anti-Jewish bigotry, we should not blame Matthew for that bigotry. Instead, we should hold interpreters accountable for the use they make of texts, and should exemplify the kind of commitment to support and protect our neighbors that would make anti-Jewish readings of Matthew seem implausible.
Chapter Five returns to the theoretical dimension of theological hermeneutics, discussing the relative benefits and drawbacks of approaches to interpretation that foreground on one hand, univocity and correctness, and on the other hand, multiple meanings and soundness. The first approach, which I label “integral hermeneutics,” coheres admirably with God’s unity, and with hermeneutical analysis that seeks the definite meaning of a particular expression. Integral hermeneutics often uphold the premise that meaning subsists in texts, and issues the ethical mandate that interpreters orient their readings toward the author’s intended meaning. The alternative perspective locates “meaning” not within texts, but in the manifold interactions of humans with texts, or humans with other humans. In this complex economy of interpretation, we nonetheless find many of the most careful, diligent, faithful, and learned readers reaching divergent conclusions about what a given text means. Rather than taking this as evidence that only one of them is right and the rest more or less mistaken, the second approach to interpretation takes this as a reason to regard difference in interpretation as a normative condition; hence, I label this approach “differential hermeneutics.” The strength of differential hermeneutics lies in its capacity to ascribe disagreement to causes other than error or ignorance. On this account, we can expect interpreters often to disagree with one another, even as we expect the best interpretations to adduce carefully reasoned cases to justify their conclusions. While both approaches to interpretation can advance cogent reasons for the value of their perspective to theological interpreters, the practice of differential hermeneutics attenuates the spirit of contentiousness, better befits the capacities and limitations of mortal interpreters, and admits a fuller range of interpretive expression than an integral hermeneutics.To this extent at least, a differential hermeneutics affords the prospect of a more harmonious practice of biblical interpretation, attentive to the myriad particularities that constitute biblical interpreters as different people, with a view toward embodying the truths we claim to learn from the Bible.
The sixth chapter considers the importance of living out one’s interpretation of the Bible with special attention to the complications attendant on the imitation of Christ. Critics have noted an array of weaknesses to imitation-ethics: they disrupt the proper roles of the Savior and the saved, they tend to assimilate the Gospel’s daunting imperious command to the banalities of polite good citizenship, and they impose a hegemony of the homogeneous. Still, a number of warrants bolster the case on behalf of the imitation of Christ. Most obviously, Scripture seems to mandate this way of earnest discipleship; but we can sensibly expect that the lives of Christians bear at least a vague resemblance to the life of Jesus. We can maintain the value of an ethic of imitation if we attend to differences as well as similarity, if we distinguish the imitation of Christ from the misguided effort to become our own messiahs. By respecting the constitutive role that difference plays in repetition and identity, we can affirm solidarity without requiring assimilation, can order our differences to harmonious community rather than stifling monotony, can sponsor an imitation of Christ’s unwavering faithfulness to the Gospel that respects distinctions and particularities at the same time it draws us ever closer to one another and to God.
Chapter Seven tests the claims of modern integral hermeneutics against the evidence of actual interpretive practice. If we must accede to the premise that a single subsistent meaning lurks within texts, we may reasonably ask that two thousand years of scrupulously close study bring that meaning into finer focus. As a sample, I introduce the saying from the gospels wherein Jesus alludes to the sign of Jonah. This saying intrigued the church’s early commentators, among whom it evoked a remarkably diverse array of interpretations. If, as some scholars of hermeneutics suggest, we can ascribe this to the undisciplined imaginations of archaic spiritual interpretation, we ought to see a significant convergence among interpreters with the advent of critical technical scholarship. In fact, though, the interpretations of twentieth-century scholars give no clear indication that their shared commitment to scientific investigative method has brought them closer to consensus. Although one can always criticize interpretations relative to premises that particular bodies of readers uphold, no one set of interpretive presuppositions itself provides a key to unlocking textual puzzles.
Chapter Eight approaches the problem of ways one can articulate a richly biblical theology of human sexuality and hallowed relationships. In an effort to move beyond an impasse in which opposing parties cling to a handful of texts, this chapter seeks evidence for a general understanding of God’s will for human intimacy, from which to work out a theological explanation of what makes particular expressions of sexual intimacy commendable or condemnable. By reading Scripture’s accounts of the character and implications of holy intimacy, particularly as the prophets and apostles apply it to God’s relationship with humanity, this chapter develops criteria for discerning what characteristics bespeak holiness in intimacy, and how churches may face the difficult challenge of putting that discernment into practice.
Finally, epilogue introduces the concept of signifying practices, drawn from cultural criticism, as a heuristic device for understanding the relation of disciplined technical interpretation to theological, ethical, liturgical, and pastoral practice. When we bring critical attention to the full range of communicative action, we cannot justify restricting interpretive legitimacy to the phenotextual dimensions of textual expression, nor can we limit in advance the range of interpretive gestures. This essay draws the conceptual vocabulary of signifying practices into the interaction among the different related areas of theological interest, and asks how the lives we make constitute an enacted exegesis of the gospel. As the eternal Word entered the temporal economy of signification in order to make God known, so exegetical theologians can use their critical faculties not only to fine-tune our appreciation of verb tenses, allusions, and scribal tendencies, but all the more to encourage the people of God more persistently, more wisely, more persuasively to make visible the truth toward which our interpretive labors aim.
With the epilogue on signifying practices, this series of forays into unfamiliar terrain closes. What I offer here amounts only to the report of an exploratory expedition; much remains to be done, from surveying and planning to assessing the various ways by which one might dwell in this habitat. In the end, what I pass along from these essays turns out to involve less a discovery of something new, than a critical reappropriation of ways that faithful readers have interpreted Scripture and sought to direct their hearts and souls and minds and strength toward loving God more truly. That effort always begins, never ends, and only benefits from sharing the vocation of discipleship.
*1* I develop this argument in much greater depth and nuance in Making Sense of New Testament Theology, rep. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2005.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *