Mustering my tattered energies, I put together a very short contribution to a project in which Blogaria’s own Mark Goodacre is involved: a textbook on methods of New Testament interpretation, with examples of each approach. My assignment was to describe “the history and theory of Theological interpretations of the New Testament” – in 700-800 words. The brevity was, of course, an attraction and an impediment at the same time. I managed to say most of what I wanted to, but goodness gracious, what gross oversimplification!

Now, to finish grading, produce three overdue lectionary essays, three overdue book reviews, and close out the academic year. (Mini-essay after the jump)

“The history and theory of Theological interpretations of the New Testament”

Although contemporary readers evidently feel the need for a method for theological interpretation of the New Testament, ancient readers managed comfortably without any such theoretical superstructure. The first centuries of interpreters – and many since that time – perceived no great discontinuity between biblical narrative and exhortation and their own situations in life. That discontinuity emerged at the convergence of several cultural and ecclesiastical forces: conflicts that splintered the Western church, and the ideological power of modernity, to name two prominent such influences. The modern model for theological interpretation dominated theological hermeneutics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; though many interpreters remain convinced that modern tenets should continue to determine legitimate interpretation of the Bible, an increasing constituency of scholars has imagined an approach to theology and Scripture that does not stand or fall with strictly modern premises.

The earliest Christian interpreters were, of course, reading and theologizing on a Bible that comprised the Old Testament books, gradually supplemented (and in some circumstances “supplanted”) by gospels, apostolic letters, and apocalypses. They brought to their interpretations of the nascent New Testament the same figurative imagination with which they recognized the Old Testament precedents for Jesus’ ministry and the apostles’ vision of an expansive communion of Gentiles and Jews. As they clarified the doctrinal exposition of Jesus’ identity, or the Trinity, of the Spirit and the church, they deployed a richly allusive, typological, figurative understanding of God’s ways and God’s communication to humanity in Scripture (both Old and New).

The church’s conflicts over doctrine gradually elicited a body of theory concerning interpretation. In response to questions about what makes some interpretations sounder than others, theologians began to articulate a critical practice of theological interpretation; the best-known of these early hermeneutical works is Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine. Subsequent theologians developed a variety of approaches to exegetical theology. The well-known quadriga that differentiated literal, allegorical (doctrinal), tropological (ethical), and anagogical (eschatological) senses of Scripture, did not so much mandate four different meanings for each passage as it described four sets of criteria within which one might develop interpretations. From late antiquity through medieval interpretation, readers dwelt comfortably with a bounded variety of interpretations. They saw this diversity as a sign of God’s abundant grace operating through the imaginations of authors and interpreters, as long as the interpretations upheld the church’s teaching.

The Reformation and the culture of modernity disrupted this situation in several ways. The divisions that set European Christians against one another heightened the urgency that biblical interpretations did not just fit soundly within the limits of a bounded plurality of acceptable readings, but that they were correct in a way that excluded alternative readings. The Reformers’ antipathy to interpretive variety strengthened their insistence that the Bible yielded a single, clear, simple sense (although this rarely helped resolve any interpretive conundrums). With the Reformation, an insistence on the singularity and plainness of meaning did not diminish the proliferation of interpretive alternatives but intensified the stakes of disagreements among interpreters.

Modernity made the temporal quality of “progress” a self-evident element in the ways that European cultures imagined their relation to the past, making plausible the assumption that a historical gap separates us from our biblical forebears. A modern interpreter needs to ascertain what a text meant, and subsequently to devise an application of the archaic meaning to contemporary life, or to insist that some meanings escape cultural specificity (while others remain captive to their contexts of origin). Likewise, modern premises warrant interpreters’ confidence that interpretations from the past fatally lack the legitimation of up-to-date scholarship. Especially where modernity and the Reformation converge, biblical interpreters face the daunting challenge of determining the single historical sense of a passage that in some way informs radically different (modern) cultural circumstances.

While many scholars continue to refine and enhance modern approaches to theological interpretation, others propose promising alternative paths. The scholars who sponsor these alternatives typically allow greater latitude for diversity in interpretation (comparable to the bounded plurality of pre-Reformation interpretive practice). They expand the scope of their hermeneutical imagination beyond modernity’s strict historicism, pursuing the theological interpretation of Scripture as a properly (and unabashedly) theological endeavor. Their interpretations embrace doctrinal and ethical concerns alongside questions of dates and historical background. Such scholars see the discourses of drama, the visual arts, literature, and music (among others) as models of fields where critical evaluation and imaginative expression inform one another. Theological interpreters can take up a comparable practice of representing the faith of biblical antecedents afresh, accountable to criticism on historical and theological, aesthetic, or ethical grounds. Thus imagined, the theological interpretation of Scripture finds strands of continuity with generations of previous interpreters from the earliest to the most modern.

Further Reading:

A. K. M. Adam, Faithful Interpretation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.

A. K. M. Adam, Stephen Fowl, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Francis Watson. Reading Scripture With the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Ellen F. Davis and Richard B Hays, The Art of Reading Scripture. Eerdmans, 2003.

Stephen Fowl, Engaging Scripture. Blackwell, 2000.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Baker Academic, 2006.

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