Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice

Daniel J. Treier Baker Academic, Grand Rapids July 1, 2008
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In this book Treier, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College, examines the theological interpretation (hereafter TI) movement, an interpretive approach that began in the 1990s within mainline Protestantism “to reverse the dominance of historical criticism over churchly reading of the Bible and to redefine the role of hermeneutics in theology” (p. 14).

The Introduction first seeks to support the movement as one of recovery and reversal by positing TI as the primary hermeneutical approach to the Bible until the bifurcation of biblical studies into biblical and dogmatic theology in the eighteenth century and the subsequent use of the former as merely a historical enterprise by German and American university scholars. Treier identifies Karl Barth as the pioneer and model for TI, whose influence has been transmitted through four strands that are all directly or indirectly related to Yale University. Inasmuch as scholars from mainline churches have remained engaged with the university system, they have been at the epicenter of “the hermeneutical renaissance that has accompanied [Barth’s] theology” and therefore have been the fullest participants in the reversal of the most pernicious tendency of “modern biblical criticism,” which makes historical distance between reader and author a problem to be resolved and critical distance between reader and text an ideal to be preserved (p. 21).

Part 1 of the book considers the common themes that Treier believes bind together proponents of the TI movement. The three conveniently alliterative chapters involve a two-part structure. Though “Recovering the Past” is the title of chapter 1, it really defines the subject matter of the first two chapters, four characteristics of precritical reading. The first three (as piety, about Christ, and for Christian practice) are covered in chapter 1 while the last, “Reading within the Rule(s),” is covered in chapter 2. These aspects then make precritical interpretation a “spiritual practice” that is superior to the regnant post-eighteenth-century interpretive approach, which is deficient not only because of being method-driven but also because of its basis on a false ideal of neutrality as objectivity.

Chapter 3 turns from aspects of TI, which are modeled directly on precritical interpretation, to an aspect that is complicated by the contemporary “democratic environment”—communal reading (p. 79). In working “to discern how the Holy Spirit leads members of the Christian community to discover the meaning of Scripture,” Treier argues that the ultimate emphasis should be on virtuous practice rather than on an individualistic interpretive method (p. 80).

Treier turns in part 2 to discuss challenges facing the TI movement. Chapters 4 and 5 survey the “internal arguments” that TI faces with regard to the manner and degree to which biblical interpretation ought to engage nontheological disciplines. Chapter 4 considers the way in which “biblical theology” manifests the tension in bringing critical methods (especially historical and literary) to bear on biblical scholarship. In the first part of the chapter Treier traces the rise and fall of biblical theology so that in the second part he can consider three attempts at its recovery from within the field of biblical scholarship: revising biblical theology’s historical results based on the reality of progressive revelation; reorienting biblical theology around the final, canonical form of the biblical text; and redefining biblical theology with the interests of systematic theology in mind.

The discussion here is a bit unclear. At times biblical theology is construed as the “biblical theology movement,” which seems to have much in common with TI, while at other times biblical theology is viewed as nothing more than the purely historical, descriptive side of the bifurcation between biblical studies and systematic theology. Though Treier gives a sympathetic presentation of these three approaches within biblical scholarship which are attempting to retain a (chastened) role for critical scholarship, it is implied that none is adequate because none of the models has recognized the normative role that the theology of the reader ought to play in the interpretive process.

Treier suggests that the failure of biblical theology to acknowledge the normative role of the reader as theologian can be overcome by appropriating the insight of general hermeneutics. This is the subject of chapter 5, the longest chapter in the book. He argues that the works of Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur have corrected the deficiencies of critical scholarship in dealing with the modern historical consciousness by showing more fully the way in which texts yield meaning. In his consideration of how theologians have attempted to relate the insight of general and special hermeneutics, Treier treats several important figures and concepts: potential premodern precedents, appropriation of general hermeneutical insight and criticism thereof, drama as a metaphor, and phron­esis in hermeneutics. Owing perhaps to the complexity of the subject or perhaps to Treier’s attempt to suppress his own opinions in order to offer a balanced treatment of the subject, the treatment here is rather piecemeal and the connections are somewhat difficult to follow.

Treier moves beyond a survey of internal arguments to consider the challenges facing TI beyond the academy and thus intersects with two manifestations of globalization—postcolonial thought and pentecostal Christianity in South Africa and South Asia. Treier is to be applauded for encouraging biblical interpreters to consider the implications of globalization on their task. But given the specific subject of this volume, more attention would have been welcomed with regard to the way in which distinctive aspects of TI (and not just biblical interpretation more broadly) are challenged by postcolonial thought and the pneumatological practice of biblical interpretation in the global South.

Treier moves in the conclusion to a synthetic definition of TI. First, he indicates that TI is tied to a concurrent move within theological studies to return to an appreciation of the inherently holistic nature of doing theology, which transcends harmful fragmentation leading to the erroneous notion that theology as theory gets formalized apart from practice and then simply dominates it.

Second, after acknowledging the reactive element of TI, he offers the nine theses of the four-year “Scripture Project” hosted by the Center of Theological Inquiry (Princeton, NJ) as a reflection of “the identity of theological interpretation of Scripture” (pp. 199–200). Third, Treier reacts against the prevailing tendency to reduce TI to its commitment to the church and its embrace of the church’s concerns—canon, creed, culture—over against the concerns of biblical studies arising within the university. Treier believes it is more appropriate to see the concerns and techniques of both the church and the university as God-given, often complementary “lenses,” which faithful readers ought to employ judiciously in their task to know Him more fully.

Treier’s work evokes a variety of responses. Since it is a primer based on a sympathetic presentation of primary texts that provide warrant for the broader claim of TI, it ought to spur direct engagement with those texts. For example inasmuch as TI claims to be engaged in a recovery of precritical practice, it relies on and appropriates the insight of specialists in the area of precritical exegesis. To this end, the conclusions of these specialists should be directly engaged to ensure an ever-sharper view of exactly what precritical exegesis entailed and whether TI, in choosing to follow some but not other aspects of precritical exegesis, has in fact discarded essential aspects of precritical exegesis and actually defeated its own recovery effort.

On another level Treier has offered a construction that itself deserves critique. Has Treier properly defined TI by his selection of the specific figures and texts that he has considered typical of the TI movement? For example by making Yale University the epicenter of the movement, has Treier intentionally excluded those theologians typically associated with the so-called Chicago School? Treier’s construction also calls for response from those whom he identifies as having inadequate models—biblical theologians, evangelicals, and Roman Catholic biblical scholars.

Finally underlying methodological suppositions in Treier’s construal also deserve further comment. For example in spite of following Mark Noll’s advice to observe “a strict quota on uses of the word ‘narrative’ ” it is clear that for Treier TI has an intimate connection with narrative (p. 10). What is less clear is whether Treier believes this tie is essential and whether in fact the movement and practice should more appropriately be called “narratival interpretation.

—Christopher Graham with Glenn R. Kreider

January 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2011 vol. 168 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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