Why Narrative Theology?

Within Protestantism (and more specifically Evangelicalism) there has been a tendency toward the abstractions of doctrinal confessions. Theology has most often tended toward bullet pointed statements of confession. While this has its place it fails to grapple with the revelation of God which we confess as such: the very form of the Scriptures. The nature of Scripture itself is not first and foremost abstract universal claims, but primarily story. Why is this? Should it affect the manner in which we reflect upon our theological confessions? How might it be reflected appropriately without simply becoming (like so many sermons) three points and a poem? (Even the “world” regards story as more important to communication than bullet-points).
The following were listed by David F. Ford* as reasons offered “for the attractiveness of narrative” in theological reflection (ironically enough offered in bullet-pointed fashion):

  • it is the main genre of the Bible
  • it is the underlying structure of the Christian creeds, baptism and eucharist
  • its concreteness and particularity deserve primacy in relation to the more abstract, generalizing approach of much doctrine and theology
  • it gives a proper prominence to people in interaction, to specific contexts and to actions and events, all of which tend to be marginalized or treated too generally and abstractly by traditional theological discourse
  • it provides a way into doctrine and ethics which is definite, imaginative and well-suited to the gospel while not claiming an exclusive or imperialistic universality
  • it is the basic, irreducible way to express human experience and identity
  • it enables a fresh approach to the relationship of historical fact to Christian truth
  • it provides a forum for encounter and discussion, not only between very different types of Christian theology, but also between various religions and cultures (all of which have their stories) and between theology and other disciplines (e.g. literary studies, history, psychology, anthropology).

The story of God is the story of redemption and life. It is the story we find ourselves caught up in and carrying various threads of the divine narrative toward their culmination in new creation. The story of Scripture is our story and the cosmos’ story. So let’s at least speak in ways that flows from God’s own self revelation in Scripture, in the Word made flesh, and in the Spirit within. Let us tell the old, old story as the new experience of the divine life…as reflecting Father, Son and Spirit.
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* D. F. Ford, ‘Narrative Theology,’ pp.489-91 in R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden, eds, A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (London: SCM, 1990), pp.489, 490.

The Future of Biblical Interpretation: A Book Review

Future of Biblical InterpretationThanks to IVP Academic for providing a review copy of Porter, Stanley E. and Matthew R. Malcolm, eds., The Future of Biblical Interpretation: Responsible Plurality in Biblical Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 176pp.
I offer the following review of this volume:

The Bible encompasses a plurality of voices, not only in genre but in perspective. And not surprisingly, interpreters of the Bible have generated a plurality of interpretations. How might biblical scholars work responsibly with and within this plurality? And what are the future directions or possibilities for biblical hermeneutics?
The essays in The Future of Biblical Interpretation originated in a conference held in honor of Anthony C. Thiselton, who is well known for his important work in hermeneutics and New Testament interpretation. After an opening essay by Thiselton on “The Future of Biblical Interpretation and Responsible Plurality in Hermeneutics,” the contributors look at the issues from a variety of angles—theological, scriptural, kerygmatic, historical, critical, ecclesial and relational. The result is an engaging conversation exploring responsible and productive interpretation of the Bible. A must-read for anyone seriously engaged in biblical scholarship today. [the preceding is from IVP Academic, see their press release: HERE]
CONTENTS:
Introduction
Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm
1. The Future of Biblical Interpretation and Responsible Plurality in Hermeneutics
Anthony C. Thiselton
2. Biblical Hermeneutics and Theological Responsibility
Stanley E. Porter
3. Biblical Hermeneutics and Scriptural Responsibility
Richard S. Briggs
4. Biblical Hermeneutics and Kerygmatic Responsibility
Matthew R. Malcolm
5. Biblical Hermeneutics and Historical Responsibility
James D. G. Dunn
6. Biblical Hermeneutics and Critical Responsibility
Robert C. Morgan
7. Biblical Hermeneutics and Relational Responsibility
Tom Greggs
8. Biblical Hermeneutics and Ecclesial Responsibility
R. Walter L. Moberly
Conclusion
Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm

Porter and Malcolm are to be commended for this very fine (and brief) volume. The contributors are all well-regarded in their own rights and many of the contributions offer helpful proposals for responsibility in Biblical interpretation. Essentially this volume proposes a sort of responsible “concordant polyphony” of interpretation (p.10). How these divergent voices are to be held in a sort of harmonic tension is another issue (as the editors note in their conclusion). The variant voices offered here tend toward a plurality of approaches to interpretation rather than simply a plurality of interpretations.
Chiefest of the contributions, from my perspective, were Anthony Thiselton’s open-ended suggestions for the future of Biblical interpretation and Richard Briggs’ Scriptural responsibility. Thiselton astutely notes that one cannot know the direction of Biblical interpretation despite seeing the directions it has taken and is taking. He thus refers to “future possibilities” rather than “future directions” (p.24). His “possibilities” are worth mentioning: (1) a genuine confluence between general hermeneutics and actual exegesis of Scripture, (2) the call to engage the text of Scripture as “Other” rather than simply self-reflection, (3) an equal weighting of the voices of Scripture, (4) a move beyond the greatest extremes of interpretive theory, (5) continued appropriation and development of Speech-Act Theory, and (6) a proper use of literary theories in hearing the voice/s of Scripture.
Briggs’ chapter proposes “four specific theological construals of Scripture that might productively frame Christian wrestling with hermeneutical plurality: two testaments, in a creative set of theological tensions, as a means of grace, and held together dialogically as the communicative acts of the one God who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and also the God of our Lord Jesus Christ” (p.69). This is his manner of proposing a Christian reading of the Scriptures we hold by faith and confession. He argues it is not a responsible reading that thinks one should read apart from their commitment of faith to God in Christ as confessed by all the Church everywhere. This is, to my thinking, imperative for Christian interpreters of Scripture. Walter Moberly seems to offer a similar stream of thought within the framework of “canon”. His contribution might equally offer a helpful aim for understanding responsible Christian interpretation of the texts gathered and affirmed as authoritative for and by the Church.
Along a similar trajectory is Malcolm’s contribution. He argues for a “primed” and “faithful” interpreter (pp.81-84). This is understood to be an interpreter who holds the public confession of Christ as Lord as central to responsible interpretation of Scripture. Tom Greggs (Relational Responsibility), more specifically, speaks to a Protestant hearing of Sola Scriptura grounded in his understanding of the ecumenical creeds of the early centuries.
Less helpful contributions by James Dunn (historical responsibility) and Stanley Porter (theological responsibility) are also worth mentioning. (My appraisal of their work may be tangential to my own perspective on other related issues). Dunn offers a fine reminder of the situatedness of the Biblical texts (or any text for that matter) as well as of the interpreter. This is a necessary reminder. He does, however, seem to offer essentially his own (once again) offering of a re-reading of Paul in the strain of the “new perspective”. In this sense, I find him helpful and unhelpful. His methodology being helpful, his conclusions less than. Robert Morgan (Critical Responsibility), likewise, argues from a more thorough-going historical-critical perspective from within his own understanding of a NT theological perspective particularly with regard to the descriptions of the Jesus of history and Christ of faith.
The reason I do not find Porter’s chapter to be as helpful as others might be his (seemingly) over negative appraisal of theological interpretation in its contemporary trending. He argues for a “Biblical hermeneutic” against simply a “Biblical interpretation”. The former referring to the broader notions of theory and the latter to specific approaches to the text (or at least that is how I understand his approach). Hermeneutics is broad (entailing the interpreter as well), while interpretation is supposedly narrow and involves “processes and techniques” (p.31). I appreciate his attempts to delineate the two, but perhaps this is nuancing in ways others here have not and might themselves find unfruitful. Following his trajectory, he proposes a theological hermeneutic against a theological interpretation. Again, I find certain aspects of his approach to be helpful, while also seeming to be overly critical apart from a genuine appraisal of specifics. [Perhaps what is really needed is my own further interaction with other writings of Porter to better grapple with his approach]
Perhaps one of the most poignant comments for many of those who might make use of a volume like this was Walter Moberly’s personal narrative interwoven within his discussion of Ecclesial Responsibility:

“the way the Bible is taught in divinity schools and seminaries in the US…[is] not fit for [the ecclesial purpose of producing] future leaders of churches who will spend much time reading and interpreting Biblical texts, can finish their studies and still be relatively clueless about how to handle these texts well in the situations in which they find themselves” (p.134, referring to the comparable appraisal of Dale B. Martin, Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal [Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox, 2008]).

That is a danger, all too real, that it would be hoped The Future of Biblical Interpretation might aid in remedying in part by at least raising the imperative questions of (as the subtitle claims) responsible plurality in Biblical hermeneutics. This is a welcome volume that should be incorporated into hermeneutic reading requirements for graduate level courses in Biblical hermeneutics and it is a fine praise to the tremendous contributions of the scholarship of Anthony Thiselton.
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See what other reviewers have to say:
Nate Claiborne
Jim West (forthcoming)

Daniel Block on Inductive Study

Daniel Block offers some basic (but essential) advice to students of Scripture to study the text as primary, rather than turning to other sources first.

“When you are wrestling with biblical texts, wrestle with the texts.”

(see more at Koinonia).

Biblical Interpretation Book Giveaway!

Invitation to Biblical InterpretationI have managed to acquire an extra copy of Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson’s, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology (Kregel Academic, 2011). This volume approaches the text via the historical/literary/theological method where these three aspects must be considered carefully in order to move toward a proper interpretation of Scripture. The volume’s approach begins with discussion of the canonical elements (because of the place this text has within the community which affects all else), moving to genre discussions (with analysis of specific passages), and finally discussing issues like discourse, syntax, and word studies. This is the opposite direction that a number of other texts have taken and it is (in my opinion) a more welcome approach for teaching students how to properly interpret Scripture. (The wonderful folks of Kregel Academic also offer quizzes and power-point slides for professors adopting this text).
With that said, I am going to give away 1 copy of this book to a randomly selected commenter to this post (with a maximum of four entries per person and one entry per each of the following):

  1. Leave a comment answering the question: “What is your favorite genre of Scripture and why?”
  2. Link to this giveaway on Facebook and leave a comment with a link to your FB post.
  3. Link to this giveaway on Twitter and leave a comment with a link to your Twitter post.
  4. Re-blog this giveaway linking to this post.

The giveaway will end Wednesday, November 13th at 11:59PM. The winner will be announced Thursday morning. Happy commenting. 🙂
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Due to shipping costs I am only offering this giveaway to those residing in the U.S. and Canada. I will contact the winner privately to obtain a shipping address.

Playing with Gadamer

“What man needs is not just the persistent posing of ultimate questions, but the sense of what is feasible, what is possible, what is correct, here and now.” (Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method [trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall; 2nd rev.ed.; New York: Continuum, 2002], p.xxxviii).Gadamer

In my “leisure” reading, I’m working through a number of volumes dealing with interpretive theory and the history of Biblical hermeneutics. One of these volumes is Stanley E. Porter & Jason C. Robinson’s Hermeneutics: An Introduction to Interpretive Theory (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011). Porter and Robinson provide biographical context to each of the influential theorists which are included, like Schleiermacher, Heidegger, Ricoeur, Derrida, Thiselton, and Vanhoozer. Among these (and others), they discuss the philosophical hermeneutic of Hans-Georg Gadamer.
What strikes me is Gadamer’s sense of “play” (Spiel) in relation to what he describes as the “fusion of horizons” (the interplay of the horizon of reader with that of the text where neither is unaltered by this discourse). The rejection of notions of abstract objectivity and duly the rejection of total personal subjectivity are key. Gadamer tries to offer a more realist approach that believes the two horizons work in a dialectical interchange.

“Gadamer’s hermeneutics is concerned with establishing a dialectic or open-ended questioning and answering between the past and present, and between the world and the interpreter. Knowledge is about more than simply taking a good look to see what is there. It is a product of asking sincere questions that we do not already know the answers to, answers that may surprise and even disappoint our expectations.” (Porter & Robinson, Introduction, p.80).

For Gadamer there can be no getting at another’s meaning (text, art, conversation) apart from genuine interplay between the horizons: an openness to the “other” that cannot predetermine answers  to the questions without failing to genuinely interact toward fullest understanding.

“Understanding is more than merely re-creating another’s meaning. It occurs when we appreciate questionableness and open-endedness, and when we begin working out available possibilities.” (Porter& Robinson, Interpretation, p.101)

Further, this pertains to the study of Scripture. We cannot (following Gadamer’s proposal) approach Scripture for understanding apart from an openness to hear answers and be asked questions which we could not have imagined beforehand and may not even immediately agree with. “[T]o read a biblical passage and allow the text to speak for itself may mean that the interpreter comes away from it frustrated and disappointed because what was said was not expected or desired. Such is an indication of a genuine play, dialogue, and an encounter with difference that offers new truth” (Porter & Robinson, Interpretation, p.94).
This was readily apparent in the college course I taught last semester on the books Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. If one can read these books without being troubled about the world and the God of Israel who is the maker of heaven and earth, then was has not truly taken care to interact with these texts. This account of Israel and her God intentionally disturbs our consciences. It stirs us to question what we think we know about this God.
So what do you think? Does this “fusion of horizons” via the openness of genuine interplay help your thinking about how best to understand Scripture?