Practicing Theological Interpretation

March 6, 2012 — Leave a comment

[This review is part of the What Is Theological Interpretation? series]

Full disclosure, this week is going to be pretty book focused. But, hey, that’s not really anything new is it?

Yesterday, I gave you a review of Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, which is a textbook and clocks in at 850+ pages. Today, thanks to Baker Academic sending along a review copy, we’ll look at Joel B. Green’s Practicing Theological Interpretation which clocks in at just over 125 pages. Don’t let the brevity deceive you though!

Overview

In some ways, we could look at Green’s book as taking a distinctive approach to the third step of the hermeneutical triad. However, for Green, theological interpretation is slightly different than gleaning theological fruits from the text as Kostenberger and Patterson talk about in their book.

The book consists of 4 exploratory chapters, the first three of which were presented as the Earle Lectures on Biblical Literature at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Because of this, you can somewhat see how those 3 chapters function like a unit and chapter 4 was added for publication purposes (as Green himself says).

In the introduction, Green sketches out some background to the development of “theological interpretation of Scripture.” He notes that it isn’t a “carefully defined ‘method,'” but rather is identified by “certain sensibilities and aims,” most important of which might be seeking to be self-consciously ecclesially located in our interpretation (2). In this way, “a theological hermeneutics of Christian Scripture concerns the role of Scripture in the faith and formation of persons and ecclesial communities” (4). To further explain this, Green’s chapters a kind of “show and tell” that “discuss four among several problems that must be adjudicated if we are to engage in theological interpretation of Scripture” (9).

The concern of chapter 1 is to identify the relationship between theological exegesis and Christian formation. As will become the format for the following chapters, Green starts by sketching out the issue, and then presents an application of it. In this chapter, he uses James 1 to help illustrate his point that “theological interpretation of Scripture participates in the well-known mantra ‘context, context, context.’ But theological interpretation identifies that context especially in theological terms” (42). In other words, in theological interpretation, reading Scripture is not “reading someone else’s mail” as critical biblical studies would have us think (15-16). Rather, “if the church is one, if the present community of Jesus’ followers is the same community to which James addressed these words, if there is only one church through the centuries and across the globe, then the letter has our names written on it” (17-18). From this vantage point, Green then unpacks how James addresses us today how it should be allowed to shape our self understanding.

Chapter 2 then moves into the sticky territory of differentiating historical criticism and theological interpretation. This is probably one of the “heavier” chapters of the book as it seeks to set out the aims and sensibilities of theological interpretation over and against those of historical criticism. Green does an admirable job and shows that while theological interpretation is not interested in investigating the actual historical accuracy of biblical events (or the “actual” events that stand behind biblical narrations), it is interested in the original historical situation “within which the biblical materials were generated, including the socio-cultural conventions that they take for granted” (45).

In this sense, theological interpretation is still paying attention to history, but not becoming preoccupied with historical questions that text can’t answer. As Green says “theological interpretation of Christian Scripture concerns itself with interpretation of the biblical texts in their final form, not as they might be reconstructed by means of historical-critical sensibilities” (49). The case study he chooses to illustrate this is Acts 6:1-7 and he unpacks the historical environment of the text without detouring into questions about a kind of “objective” history of which Luke is only presenting a certain perspective. For theological interpretation, the perspective that counts is the one Luke presents, and our interpretive endeavors should seek to understand it alone.

Chapter 3 then brings up the question of how theological interpretation relates to the Rule of Faith. In particular, Green asks what happens “when an otherwise apparently faithful reading of Scripture stands in tension with a claim of the ecumenical creeds of the church” (80). To generate a discussion along these lines, Green draws on material from his more in-depth study Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (which also happens to be part of the Studies in Theological Interpretation series). The tension relates to Green’s exegetical conclusion that Scripture teaches we are souls rather than that we have souls and the affirmation of the Athanasian Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith that affirms that Christ had a “rational soul.” It is worth quoting Green at length to see how he resolves this tension:

I conclude, then, that my understanding of the witness of the Scriptures to theological anthropology may stand in tension with a particular anthropology assumed by the christological claim made by the Athanasian Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith, but in no way does my interpretation of the monist anthropology of the Scriptures stand in tension with the kerygmatic affirmation of Jesus’ true humanity essential to these two creedal statements (95).

In other words, Green still agrees with the intent of the creedal statements though his theological exegesis leads him to affirm what on the surface appears to contradict them. In general, I am comfortable with this kind of interpretive move since the language used in the creeds was generally the best available, but is not the final word and certain is not something that stands over and above Scripture. I think in his approach Green places primacy on the biblical witness above the creeds without minimizing or discarding the creeds for the valuable resources that they are. As he concludes, “coherence with the Rule of Faith, then, would serve as one, but not the only criterion of a Christian reading of the Bible” (98).

In chapter 4, Green makes a case study of John Wesley’s approach to theological interpretation which was developed before the rise of historical criticism and so cannot be presented as a reaction to it. Here Green takes up the issue of neutrality when it comes to bringing theological commitments to reading Scripture and notes that it is “often mistaken for ‘objectivity'” and “is not only an impossibility for the theological interpreter but also an unrealistic, undesirable, and, indeed, impossible aspiration for any sort of exegete” (102). As Green summarizes:

The central question becomes whether we are able and willing to recognize our commitments, since failure to do so does not keep us from having those commitments but rather increases the probability that we will unwittingly regard our commitments as simply the way things are for all people in all places and, more to the point in the present context, as simply “the plain meaning of Scripture” (102).

Green then moves to investigating how John Wesley navigated this tension and particularly how he approached the question of predestination in the opening of 1 Peter. I didn’t particularly find Wesley’s interpretation all that persuasive, but as a Calvinist, it was illuminating to see his careful and well-thought out approach to a difficult text. In this way, it was kind of fitting conclusion to the book for me since it illustrated how I could benefit from a theological interpretation of a passage of Scripture coming from a theological vantage point I don’t particularly agree with.

After this chapter, Green closes with a few thoughts, noting that “theological engagements with Scripture has no need to exclude other interpretive agendas, but only insists that reading the Bible theologically as Christian Scripture has its own inherently theological presumptions and protocols” (124). He then outlines that there is more work to be done and more questions to be answered, and these center on:

  • Theological claims
  • Theological dispositions
  • Theological horizons
  • Theological method

Conclusion

In the end, this is a great little introductory book to the theological interpretation of Scripture. It is deceptively packed with incisive analysis and extended discussions in such a short space. I think Green’s explanation and demonstration of theological interpretation goes a long way to clarify its “sensibilities and aims” but as Green himself notes there is still more work to be done. I think it still remains to be seen whether the advances that are beneficial to theological interpretation are really new, or whether it is turning back the clock to pre-Enlightenment modes of interpretation that are nonetheless building on advances in understanding of Bible backgrounds and contexts.

I guess as the conversation unfolds, we will see!

Book Details

  • Author: Joel B. Green
  • Title: Practicing Theological Interpretation: Engaging Biblical Texts For Faith and Formation
  • Series: Theological Explorations For The Church Catholic
  • PublisherBaker Academic
  • Paperback: 160pgs
  • Reading Level: General Reader/Bible School
  • Audience Appeal: Christians interested in the basics of theological interpretation of Scripture
  • Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of Baker Academic)

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Nate

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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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