Perspectives Resources

Theological Interpretation: Some Traits, a Key, and a List

D. Christopher Spinks


According to Francis Watson, theological interpretation is but one subset of “a new paradigm for biblical interpretation [that] has begun to take shape and to establish itself” (Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology [Eerdmans, 1997] 95-96). This new paradigm can be attributed to at least two interrelated acknowledgments that are significant to its emergence: the biblical texts are theological, and many readers have theological aims and interests when approaching the biblical texts. The place and perspective of the interpreter often go hand in hand with the nature of the text. If the interpreter’s vantage point is from within the larger Christian community, with all the convictions that entails, then either an implicit or explicit acknowledgment of the character of the biblical texts is at work in the practice of reading and interpreting.

Theological interpretation, in its account of the biblical texts as Scripture and its assessment of the Christian community in the interpretative process, is identified by certain conversations. These conversations have not fully settled the debatable matters, but they have given theological interpretation some distinctive hues. In addition to the tensions of coming to terms with the Bible as a sacred text, accounting for the role of faith, and recalling the historical practices of interpretation, one of the most distinctive characteristics of theological interpretation has been its conversational method.

Some Traits

The Tension of a Sacred Text: M Turner and J.B. Green list seven features that “have provoked a renewed interest in such theological approaches” (“New Testament Commentary and Systematic Theology: Strangers or Friends?” in Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology [Eerdmans, 2000] 8; cf. E. Davis and R.B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture [Eerdmans, 2003] 1-8). I suggest that something similar to their fourth factor—“recognition of the theological and religious nature of the texts and readership”—is the primary factor leading to all the others. Theological interpretation as a developing form of biblical interpretation begins with the conviction that the texts of the Bible are somehow uniquely sacred Scripture. C. Wood similarly acknowledges such a notion: “It would be inconsistent to affirm or assume the scriptural status of the texts and to deny that the status has hermeneutical implications” (“Hermeneutics and the Authority of Scripture,” in Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation [Fortress, 1987] 9-10).

Sacredness, however, is not a straightforward concept and resulting matters of interpretation are not without influence from the competing perspectives in today’s hermeneutical discussion. Among theological interpreters there is a certain tension that appears when one speaks of the texts as sacred. For many who adhere to the biblical texts as inherently sacred, the effects of tradition and community are eschewed (cf. the introduction by R. Lundin in Disciplining Hermeneutics: Interpretation in Christian Perspective [Eerdmans, 1997] 8). For many others the sacredness of the text is found only in a community’s reverence for them. Theological interpreters are faced with an ontological/functional dilemma that reflects the chasm between modernism and postmodernism.

The Role of Faith: When one accounts for the context of a community of faith, one must contend with the very question of faith itself. One might say that the issue of faith that influences one’s perspective on the biblical text is at the very center of the emergence of theological interpretation. In generations past, faith was often viewed as a hindrance to dialogue. It was “understood as a subjective, private orientation unfit to enter into public discourse, and, having been compelled by the structure of the discipline to internalize this view, it is difficult to enter into dialogue with a discipline such as systematic theology that decisively rejects it” (F. Watson, Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective [Eerdmans, 1994] 12). B. Meyer notes three ways in which faith has been dismissed or devalued in reading the NT: 1) the NT simply is not the Word of God; 2) faith is not a factor at all in the reading process; and 3) even if faith were a factor, it is separable from any “governing religious judgment” (Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship: A Primer in Critical Realist Hermeneutics [Liturgical, 1994] 174-96).

In conjunction with the renewed perspective of the biblical texts as sacred Scripture, though, P. Achtemeier states that “the final demonstration of the authority of the scriptural witness is an article of faith,” and “…the affirmation of the authority of the biblical witness is a matter of faith and needs to be debated and discussed on that basis” (Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture [Hendrickson, 1999] 150). A Christian approach, K. Möller claims, is “one that does not only spring into action once the interpreter has fulfilled his [sic] historical-critical duties…but one that informs the interpretive process throughout” (“Renewing Historical Criticism,” in Renewing Biblical Interpretation [ed. C. Bartholomew et al.; Zondervan, 2000] 163).

The postmodern milieu has created space for exploration of faith-full readings of sacred texts. In acknowledging the situatedness of the reader as well as the writer, Christian biblical interpreters are able to state explicitly Christian aims for their readings of their sacred texts. Though the rise of too much subjectivity is supposed dangerous by many who revere the unchanging word of God, we have at least been able to explore interpretive schemes that (1) do not naively assume God’s voice is heard unfiltered through the pages of pew Bibles, (2) recognize that readings for the church are more than the archaeological-like removal of historical and cultural layers of obscurity, or, it must be said, (3) do not reactively give all authority to the readers. Still, presupposing the postmodern move of explicit acknowledgment of the interpreters’ aims and intentions, Watson maintains that “Christian faith, in a more or less definite form, actually has a right to exist; that it still has recognizable communal location; and that these facts have implications for the ways that biblical interpretation is practiced. …Christian faith has its own distinctive reasons for concern with the Bible” (Text and Truth, vii-viii).

Interpretative interests among a growing number have turned away from primary and exclusive interests in things historical, grammatical, sociological, or literary and toward the theological. This turn has not precluded the practicing or pursuit of things historical, grammatical, literary, or sociological. Indeed, different proponents have championed each of these methods as the best way to address theological issues. With a principal interest in things theological, these practices and pursuits have simply taken on a cooperative, pragmatic, or secondary role. Nor have theological interests only now begun to surface. Theological readings have always been at the heart of much biblical scholarship. In the last century one need only look to early figures like A. Schlatter and K. Barth, whose works prefaced much of today’s resurgence in theological interpretation; and to later figures like P. Stuhlmacher, whose 1977 work introduces the term “theological interpretation” in the early stages of its contemporary resurgence (Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Toward a Hermeneutic of Consent [Fortress, 1977]).

On the whole, the emergence of theological interpretation is an attempt by scholars from within “to validate the role of faith in the interpretive endeavor, or, to put it another way, to make faith an explicit player in the public sphere of academic discourse” (S. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, 2nd ed. [Liturgical, 1999] xxxvi). As a corollary, I suggest that a part of bringing faith into the public sphere of academic discourse is treating the sacred texts of faith as such and handling all the necessary associations that come with this acknowledgement. James D.G. Dunn, in a discussion of the term “Scripture,” sums up this very point and suggests some responsibilities theological interpreters will need to accept as they wrestle with the issues of sacred texts and experiences of faith: “The very term ‘Scripture’ makes the same point: we are talking not simply about ‘writings’ (graphai), which is the primary sense of the term in Greek; we are talking about writings regarded as sacred, which is always how the term graphe/graphai is used in the NT. The implication that follows immediately is that such writings cannot be adequately appreciated and understood unless they are treated theologically. That in turn means that the interpreter must have a sensitivity to the character of the texts being interpreted as theological, as Scripture, a capacity to appreciate the fundamental theological convictions that have shaped the whole, and an empathy with the experiences of faith from which the texts emerged and which they express” (“Ex Akoes Pisteos,” Ex Auditu 16 [2000] 35).

Finally, canon and the role (or rule?) of faith in interpretation are closely linked. I must let a short statement by J. Gracia call attention to the matter: “When these texts are put together into a set, the Bible, they become something different than they were, and their interpretation necessarily changes, for the latter must take into account the new textual context” (How Can We Know What God Means? The Interpretation of Revelation (Palgrave, 2001] 138). The mention of canon does point us back to a time when the questions of faith and sacred texts would not have seemed extraordinary.

Premodern Renewal: Issues of Scripture and faith in the interpretive process have renewed interest in pre-modern perspectives that for the most part infrequently questioned the nature of the biblical texts or the role of faith in interpretation. Few suggest premodern readings should be accepted without reservation. Even so, it is no longer assumed that the evolution of interpretive theories is necessarily always an improvement. C. Wood rightly voices a typical outlook of theological interpretation when he states that “[t]he older exegetical tradition of the church contained a number of directives to the interpreter seeking a Christian understanding of the text of Scripture” (“The Task of Theological Hermeneutics,” Perkins Journal 33 [1980] 6). Three of the most important directives include several of the same issues at work in the present discussion of theological interpretation: (1) the interpreter’s subjective disposition toward the texts; (2) the proper context of interpretation, namely the church; and (3) effective ways of listening to the text.

Transcending Polarities: Theological interpretation has a distinct dependence on certain postmodern perspectives. This is due in large part to the fact that the theological interpretation now emerging is finding its bearings in a world that has overturned many of the modernist ideals. The recognition of components such as theology, faith, community, and interpretive history in the formation of reading practices calls into question the objectivity one may have in reading the biblical texts. A. Outler described the current climate as one where “there is a widespread sense of a great reversal, marked more by undertones of irony than confidence” (“Toward a Postliberal Hermeneutics,” Theology Today 42 [1985] 282). His description has some credibility when one begins to ask whose theology, whose faith, which community, and what part of interpretive history is the “right” one. Such questions remind us that the theological interpretive process works toward provisional and contextual conclusions. Disagreements between interpreters of the Christian Scriptures, writes Gracia, “most often do not arise from the texts under interpretation, but rather from the theological assumptions that interpreters bring into their interpretations and according to which they understand the texts” (140).

Theological interpretation, as featured here—dealing with the sacredness of the biblical texts, the role of faith in the process of interpretation, and the appeal to premodern positions—does not, however, wholly find its rooting in postmodernity. It still maintains certain ties to traditionally modern styles of reading. From an epistemological stance, interpretation must continue to engage questions of history, grammar, culture, and the like because of the conviction that at every stage, from writing to collecting to reading, humans and their history are involved. Christian readers, from a theological perspective, are obliged to encounter these same questions because of the belief that God acted and acts by God’s Word coming and God’s Spirit residing in history. It is difficult, therefore, for theological interpreter to deny the inevitability of the historical-critical methods long associated with “modern” approaches to the text. To jettison modern methods completely would be as destructive to the development of theological interpretation as wholesale reliance on them.

How Do You Read? A Heuristic Key

Luke 10:25-28 narrates a short dialogue between Jesus and a legal specialist that can be taken as a model of interpretive inquiry for those who regard biblical texts as sacred texts. The lawyer approaches Jesus with a question of ultimate concern: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 25). Jesus’ two-question reply (v. 26) exposes a heuristic key for hermeneutical inquiry. He first asks about content, “What is written in the law?” His second question, however, is more than a question about content. It is about practice: “How do you read?”

In viewing the questions in this way, I am tipping my hat to one side of a translation debate. Many English translations account for an understood object in the second question but differ on whether the question is parallel with the first and asking further about the content of the law, or whether the second question is a question of orthopraxy. When they are read as two separate questions, the exchange between Jesus and the lawyer models a concern for the what and the how. The episode also hints at a final trait of theological interpretation: it is dialogical, or better yet, conversational. Theological interpretation is, indeed, a constellation of conversations striving to answer both of Jesus’ questions.

Recommended Reading List

Because the nature of theological interpretation is conversational and communitarian, and understands the Bible to be sacred text, some of the most interesting conversations are found in those projects that involve groups of people of faith. Because what falls under the aegis of “theological interpretation” is not always clear, the following sources are those that rather explicitly use the term or deal with the main traits noted above.

Compilations: The place to start is the work of E.F. Davis and R.B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture (Eerdmans, 2003), especially the “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture” (pp. 1-8). From the Society of Scriptural Reasoning—a dialogue of interpreters from the three Abrahamic religions—comes the work of D. Ford and C.C. Pecknold, eds., The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning (Blackwell, 2006). For more, see P. Ochs, “The Society of Scriptural Reasoning: The Rules of Scriptural Reasoning,” The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning 2 (May 2002), online: http://etext.virginia.edu/journals/ssr/issues/volume2/number1/ssr02-01-e01.html. Stemming from a dialogue at Cambridge University between biblical studies and theology faculty and guests, see D. Ford and G.N. Stanton, eds., Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom: Scripture and Theology (Eerdmans, 2003). The edited work of S. Fowl, The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Blackwell, 1997), is a wonderful collection of essays from all eras of Christianity. The collection itself demonstrates that the conversation is one that has been taking place from the church’s earliest days.

With a focus on NT studies, the work of J.B. Green and M. Turner, eds., Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 2000), raises all of the important issues involved in thinking about interpreting Scripture theologically. It served as the ground-clearing exercise for the Two Horizons New Testament Commentary Series (see below). A collection of essays from a conference at University of Chicago Divinity School in 1995 is found in The Journal of Religion 76:2, “The Bible and Christian Theology” (April 1996). The work of K. Vanhoozer, ed., Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Baker Academic, 2005), is helpful, and Vanhoozer’s introduction to this dictionary is worth the price of the whole volume. Finally, one should consult F. Watson, ed., The Open Text: New Directions for Biblical Studies (Trinity, 1993).

Series: Contributions to the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Brazos, 2006–) are written by leading theologians rather than biblical scholars. In The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Baker Academic, 2008–) authors follow the theological principles for interpreting Scripture set forth by Vatican II. In the Scripture and Hermeneutics Series (8 vols.; Zondervan, 2000-08), vol 1, Renewing Biblical Interpretation, is probably the most helpful for general issues of interpretation of Scripture as Scripture. The volumes in Studies in Theological Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2006–) are rather focused arguments on different matters in scriptural reading. The first volume by M. Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study, discusses some of the traits of theological interpretation mentioned above. The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 2007–) intends to engage in “deliberately theological interpretation of Scripture,” considering many of the issues first discussed in Between Two Horizons (see above).

Other Books: Aside from the books mentioned within the article, the following titles make significant contributions to the ongoing conversation: S.E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation (Blackwell, 1998); S.E. Fowl and L.G. Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life (Eerdmans, 1991); W.E. Jeanrond, Text and Interpretation as Categories of Theological Thinking (Gill and MacMillan, 1988); R.W.L. Moberly, The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus (Cambridge University Press, 2000); D. Christopher Spinks, The Bible and the Crisis of Meaning: Debates on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (T. & T. Clark, 2007); K.J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Zondervan, 1998); and, idem, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (InterVarsity, 2002).

Journals: See Ex Auditu; Journal for Scriptural Reasoning (Society for Scriptural Reasoning: http://etext.virginia.edu/journals/ssr/); and Journal of Theological Interpretation.

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