Reading Scripture with the Church: Toward a Hermeneutic for Theological Interpretation

A.K.M. Adam, Stephen Fowl, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Francis Watson Baker Academic, Grand Rapids October 1, 2006
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What is the Bible’s relationship “to theology, worship, ethics, and all the practices of everyday life” (p. 8)? What is the theological significance of Scripture? According to these authors modern biblical interpretation fails to account for the theological significance of Scripture in two ways. First, it limits meaning to the human author’s one literal sense rather than including the literal meaning of the divine Author. It ignores the Bible’s divine-human uniqueness and its attendant multiple senses. Second, modern biblical interpretation focuses on the text alone—on interpretation, translation, and exegesis; it sits immobilized in its “words about words about words” (p. 12); it stops short of the Bible’s ethical demands of the reader and its spiritual transformation of the reader. They argue that modern biblical interpretation ends at the text rather than pursuing the Bible’s divine-human goal of changed lives.

These essays blame these shortcomings on ignorance of the ancient church’s discernment of the Bible’s divine discourses. By consulting some of the voices from the history of the church, the authors seek to overcome these deficiencies. In short, “The scholars writing here refuse to trivialize the theological significance of Scripture; they recognize (and practice) the critical reading of Scripture with the conventional repertoire of textual, historical, analytical methods, but their analyses do not omit mention of, and often highlight, the ways the Bible informs and is expounded by the church’s teaching” (p. 10).

Each of the authors has written an essay and a response. Adam, of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, criticizes the poverty of modern biblical theology. He says its textual tunnel vision leaves a void. Since the time of the Reformation, anti-Roman Catholic agendas have built an interpretive fence around the Scriptures, which restricts and limits interpretation to the translation of words. He proposes that modern biblical theology—like the ancient church—should lift its eyes off the text and onto the “signifying practice” of the Bible. This term directs “our attention toward ways that our lived practice as biblical interpreters constitutes an on-going interpretation of the Bible” (p. 30). According to Adam the interpretive tradition has informed the worship and everyday living of ancient readers; the readers’ way of life and worship reveal their discernment of the divine discourse; and the readers’ practice demonstrates their understanding of the Bible.

In perhaps the most problematic chapter, Fowl, of Loyola College in Maryland, argues for the importance of a multifaceted literal sense of Scripture. He opposes the modern definition of “literal,” which says that the text has a single meaning. Employing the hermeneutics of Thomas Aquinas, Fowl redefines the literal sense to mean that which the author intended the reader to understand. But because the Scriptures have two authors, there are multiple literal senses. Further, since the primary author is the Holy Spirit, readers can never grasp the full intent of the divine Author. This definition of “literal” leads humanity to the Bible’s purpose, namely, “an ever deeper friendship with God” (p. 37). Even readers who reject a multiple-sense hermeneutic will be helped by Fowl’s emphasis on the implications of the dual authorship of Scripture.

Vanhoozer, of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, anticipates an objection to Fowl’s multi-voiced approach to the literal sense. Applying the master/slave metaphor from Paul’s letter to Philemon, Vanhoozer asks, “Is the theological interpreter thus more like a slave—of the text, its subject matter, its author—or a master, able to pursue his or her own interpretive aims and interests?” (p. 53). Since the Scriptures have divine authority, the reader, he says, is to submit to the Lord as a slave submits to his master. Thus according to Vanhoozer the reader is not the interpreter; rather the divine Author is. The Bible and its divine Author interpret the human reader. Readers are not masters of the text, and the Bible is not the slave to the reader’s interpretive whims. “The purpose of theology is to facilitate our participation in on-going evangelical action: to equip us to be doers of the word, imitators of the disciples and apostles and . . . to help us create an ecclesially embodied argument for the truth of Jesus Christ” (p. 77). Fowl concurs in his response. “Christians must remember that they are called to interpret and embody Scripture as a way of advancing toward their true end of ever deeper love of God and neighbor” (p. 126).

Watson, of the University of Aberdeen, insists that the question Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15), is fundamental to one’s interpretation of the Bible. Watson says that the multiple senses of Scripture are illustrated in the perspectives of the four Gospels. He argues that in the Lord’s Supper is seen the coherence of the one faith: “In this rite is reenacted the story of divine self-giving told by the fourfold gospel—the reenactment itself being authorized and commanded by the gospel. The reenactment secures our participation in the story and also serves to establish that it is indeed a single story that is told in the fourfold retelling” (p. 115).

Although the authors’ insistence on multiple meanings of Scripture is troubling, church leaders and scholars will find this dialogue refreshing. These are important voices in the contemporary hermeneutical discussion and they are discussing important issues. They each agree that the Bible must incite performance from the reader. The goal of interpretation is a lifestyle of obedience to the Scriptures’ teachings. These authors call for the inclusion of the church’s ancient teaching as a voice in theological interpretation. The structure of the book allows the readers to eavesdrop on an important hermeneutical conversation.

—Terry Hebert with Glenn R. Kreider

January 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2009 vol. 166 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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