Thursday, May 24, 2012

Trying to Rethink a Usual Evangelical Conception of Scripture and Interpretation

I was trained to study the Bible at what is now called Multnomah University (both the Bible College and Seminary). By and large, the methodology that I was taught (and that I also taught for a time) was/is known as the Literal Grammatical Historical approach to biblical interpretation. This approach is one that has been adopted, and really, inherited from the hard fought battles of yester-year from within the Christian 'Fundamentalist' fight with the so called 'Liberal higher critics'. So it is ironic, to say the least, that the Fundamentalists (and later, the Evangelicals) ended up adopting a historicizing and rationalist mode of interpreting the Bible; wherein Scripture becomes literature like any other kind of literature (albeit, because of the Fundamentalist-Pietist veneration, it is imbued with a special kind of status), and the tools that the Liberal higher critics employed to interpret the Scriptures, just the same. But this is indeed what has happened. Scripture and its interpretation has become reduced to abstracting ethical and propositional axioms which then are made available to furnish the theologian's and ethicist's framework or construct of articulation (but even this style, proof-texting, of theologizing has really gone out of style, except for some hold overs within the Evangelical movement---but I would say that most Evangelical theologians have moved away from using scripture in this way). This problem actually probably plagues the Evangelical pastor more than anyone else; since he has been trained to interpret this way, with no real recourse to trends away from this today (like towards theological exegesis, etc.). I am just reading Stephen Fowl's contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, which is on Scripture. Fowl sketches the history that has led to the usage of the Literal Grammatical Historical method of biblical interpretation; he writes:

[O]ver the past forty years ... it has become much more common for this Christological analogy to be applied to scripture in the way advocated by Ernst Kasemann. For Kasemann (1967), this application of a Christological metaphysic to scripture results in or justifies a further set of arguments and practices. First, scripture's human, historical status necessitates the wide variety of practices commonly known as historical criticism. Failure to see this is to lapse into a sort of docetism. Because the Bible is a human book, it should be subject to the same interpretive practices and standards as any other ancient text. In this light, the interpretative practices and theories of biblical scholars should be accessible to all regardless of one's disposition to the claims of Judaism or Christianity. Should an interpreter be a Jew or a Christian, those convictions need to be abstracted as much as possible from one's interpretative work as a biblical scholar. Biblical interpretation becomes an end in itself whose goal is either the unearthing or the construction of textual meaning(s). 
Upon deciding to treat the Bible as a human, historical text to be read like any other, the remaining issue for theologians, and Christians more generally, is how to treat the Bible as the word of God. Once interpreting the Bible as a human book becomes its own end, the question is how to move from the results of that work either to theological claims, or to the moral and ascetical formation of Christians, or to any other edifying practice which Christians have traditionally based upon scripture. 
Attempts to distil [sic] the timeless truths of scripture from the historical particularities of the biblical texts and those texts' production represent simply one form of the attempt to figure out how to treat the Bible as the word of God after already treating it as the work of human hands. The so called 'biblical theology movement' represents another form of the same attempt . . . . [Stephen E. Fowl, Scripture, in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, 347]

So Fowl, while discussing the impact of using the Christological analogy for scripture, identifies how we have gotten to where we have gotten in much of Evangelical biblical interpretation. Indeed, as he notes in his last paragraph---which is the other way I was taught to interpret the scriptures---was from the 'biblical theology movement'---which is just another attempt for the Evangelical to move beyond the rationalist method of interpretation that they fought against; but this attempt fails too, since, again, along with Kasemann, it views scripture just like any other form of ancient 'Literature', albeit imbued with special prowess, as God's Word---but this move isn't made until as Fowl notes "... simply one form of the attempt to figure out how to treat the Bible as the word of God after already treating it as the work of human hands".

Upon further reflection, I might be a little too optimistic (from earlier) about Evangelical exegetes moving beyond the specter that Fowl describes as a result of Kasemann's impact. I interact with quite a few Seminary trained Evangelicals who seem to engage the scriptures in the same way that Kasemann does; as historical literature that anyone has access to.

But how is this Christian in methodology? There is a dualism of history V. faith that is presupposed in this approach. Which is illustrated in Historical Jesus studies; when these scholars refer to 'The Jesus of Faith V. The Jesus of History'. For the Christian there should be no such competition in their Christology, and I think most Christians would say amen. But I wonder if we are this careful in the way that we conceive of Scripture and the hermeneutical theory which we so often employ as we interpret Scripture. If we follow Kasemann (like I think so many Evangelicals do), then scripture is reduced to ancient historical literature (akin to 'the Jesus of history'), to be interpreted like any other ancient literature; and then afterword, we try to figure out how our findings, through this kind of interpretive work, can be imbued with special significance for the faithful (Christians) (this is akin to 'the Jesus of faith'). But this is not to think of Scripture from within a Christian doctrine of God, and from within God's speech act to us which is centered in and from his Self-revealed Word, who is Jesus Christ.

In the next section of Fowl's chapter he moves to John Webster's proposal for scripture and biblical interpretation which Webster articulates in his awesome little book Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. I am really happy to see Fowl make this move. I have already previously discussed this through some posts, not too long ago, right here at the blog. I would like to challenge my brethren and sistren to maybe rethink their conception of scripture, and the impact that this has upon their exegesis, their expositing, and their pulpit -preaching ministries. This is only an invitation to re-think, not, obviously, a full offering for how to proceed forward (although those other posts broach that).

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