An adequate understanding of Scripture is attained only when exegesis of the biblical text (assisted by believing historical criticism) is unified with theological interpretation of Scripture. How then do we overcome the unfortunate dichotomy between exegesis (assisted by believing historical criticism) with theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS)?
Perhaps the most succinct proposal is given by Kevin Vanhoozer in his “TEN THESES OF THE THEOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE.”
A preliminary definition of theological interpretation of Scripture is given by D. Christopher Sprinks as “those readings of biblical texts that consciously seek to do justice to the perceived theological nature of the texts and embrace the influence of theology (corporate and personal; past and present) upon the interpreter’s enquiry, context, and method.”
D.A. Carson helpfully outlines the salient features and goals of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS):
(1) TIS is an attempt to transcend the barren exegeses generated by historical-critical methods, and especially those readings of Scripture that are “historical” in the sense that they are frankly anti-supernatural interpretations determined by post-Enlightenment assumptions about the nature of history.
(2) More broadly, TIS aims to bring biblical studies and theology closer together.
(3) TIS accords greater credibility to pre-critical exegesis – patristic, medieval, reformational – than to contemporary exegesis and especially to patristic readings.
(4) TIS aims to be God-centered as opposed to human-centered (including human-hermeneutical-rules-centered).
(5) TIS commonly insists we ought to read Scripture through Trinitarian lenses.
(6) TIS tends to see Scripture less as a set of propositions disclosing God than as a story of God and his saving plan of redemption.
[Source: D.A. Carson, “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Yes, But . . .” in Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives, ed. R. Michael Allen (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 187-207. ]
How then do we overcome the unfortunate dichotomy between exegesis (assisted by believing historical criticism) with Theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS)? Perhaps the most succinct proposal is given by Kevin Vanhoozer in his “TEN THESES OF THE THEOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE.”
TEN THESES OF THE THEOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE
The ten theses are arranged in five parts: the first term of each pair is properly theological, focusing on some aspect of God’s communicative agency; the second draws out its implications for hermeneutical and biblical interpretation.
1. The nature and function of the Bible are insufficiently grasped unless and until we see the Bible as an element in the economy of triune discourse.
Those who approach the Bible as Scripture must not abstract it from the Father who ultimately authors it, the Son to whom it witnesses, and the Spirit who inspired and illumines it
2. An appreciation of the theological nature of the Bible entails a rejection of a methodological atheism that treats the texts as having a “natural history” only.
The Bible is like and unlike other book: like other books, the Bible has authors; unlike other books, its primary author is God. Hence the analogia lectionis, or “analogy of reading”: the similarity in reading the Bible like other books is marked by an even greater dissimilarity due to its character as the word of God.
3. The message of the Bible is “finally” about the loving power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16), the definitive or final gospel Word of God that comes to brightest light in the word’s final form.
The God who authored Scripture sends his Son and Spirit into the dramatic story line. The God who led Israel out of Egypt is the same God who raised Jesus from the dead; the one Exodus anticipates the other.
4. Because God acts in space-time (of Israel, Jesus Christ, and the church), theological interpretation requires thick descriptions that plumb the height and depth of history, not only its length.
An exegetical method is only as rich as its conception of history. Exegetes are not outside the world described by the Bible, looking in; on the contrary, the Bible describes our world, our history. Modern biblical scholarship too often hobbles itself by its purely immanent understanding of history as atomistic and linear. In contrast to this thin conception, theological interpreters insist that to be in history is to participate in the field of God’s communicative activity. Grammatical-historical exegesis takes on theological flavor when “historical” implies “a participation in realities known by faith.”
5. Theological interpreters view the historical events recounted in Scripture as ingredients in a unified story ordered by an economy of triune providence.
There is not a square inch of human history that is extrinsic to the “mission” fields of Son and Spirit. The biblical authors are witnesses to a coherent series of events ultimately authored by God. This series of events involves both divine words and divine deeds and, as such, is both revelatory and redemptive.
6. The Old Testament testifies to the same drama of redemption as the New, hence the church rightly reads both Testaments together, two parts of a single authoritative script.
Again, this hermeneutical thesis follows from the preceding theological claim. What unifies the canon is divine providence, and this is in two senses: formally, the Bible is a product of divine authorship; materially, the subject matter of the Bible is the history of God’s covenant faithfulness. It is the story of how God keeps his word: to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and so on. It follows that the Old and New Testaments are connected at a profound level, for the one story of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promise is told in two parts.
7. The Spirit who speaks with magisterial authority in the Scripture speaks with ministerial authority in church tradition.
We owe this insight into the unity of the Old and New Testaments to precritical readers – Fathers and Reformers – who developed and maintained the Rule of Faith that generated in turn a typological Rule for Reading, in which earlier events and persons prefigured later aspects of the person and work of Christ.
8. In an era marked by the conflict of interpretations, there is good reason provisionally to acknowledge the superiority of catholic interpretation.
The word of God addresses the one church, local and universal; we are not the first generation to receive illumination. It is a bold critic who is prepared to identify his own interpretation with “what the Bible says” even when it flies in the face of the Great Tradition. One need not conclude from history of textual effects that the Bible’s meaning has changed, only that communities in different times and places have searched the Scriptures from their respective situations, enriching our understanding of the literal sense.
9. The end of biblical interpretation is not simply communication – the sharing of information – but communion, a sharing in the light, life, and love of God.
We need to recover the practice of reading Scripture in order to renew our mission and reform our habits. The theological interpretation of the Bible is as much if not more a matter of spiritual formation as it is a procedure that readers work on the text: “God’s employment of the words of Scripture to be an instrument of his own communicative presence, by which process they are made holy, has its goal and essential counterpart in God’s formation of a holy people.”
10. The church is that community where good habits of theological interpretation are best formed and where the fruit of these habits are best exhibited.
The church is not just another interpretative community with its own set of idiosyncratic interests, but the divinely appointed context wherein God ministers new life via his word and Spirit. Strictly speaking, “Scripture” makes no sense apart from the community whose life, thought, and practice it exists to rule and shape…
Kevin Vanhoozer gives a stirring challenge at the end of his paper –
The preacher is a “man on a wire,” whose sermons must walk the tightrope between Scripture and the contemporary situation. The pastor-theologian should be evangelicalism’s default public intellectual, with preaching the preferred public mode of theological interpretation of Scripture. [p. 224]
“We need to bring down the Berlin Wall that compartmentalizes the work of biblical scholars and theologians. Perhaps we should leave our safe academic havens and sojourn out into the postcritical wilderness of the Desert Fathers…In the desert, Scripture’s surplus of meaning endured not in the form of commentaries or homilies but in acts or gestures, in lives of holiness transformed by dialogue with Scripture.” May the fruitful union of biblical exegesis and systematic theology beget many more such saints – pastors-theologians who can make the Bible bloom in the desert of criticism and turn the empire of worldly desire upside down. [p. 225]
SOURCE: Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Interpreting Scripture between the Rock of Biblical Studies and the Hard Place of Systematic Theology: The State of the Evangelical (dis)Union,” in Richard Lint, Renewing the Evangelical Mission (Eerdmans, 2013), pp. 211-214.
For Further Reading:
Daniel J. Treier. Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice. Baker Publishing 2008.