John Goldingay’s Contributions to Biblical Hermeneutics

Kenneth J. Archer

John Goldingay, a charismatic evangelical, is currently the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. Prior to Fuller, Goldingay was principal and professor of OT at St John’s Theological College, Nottingham, England. He is ordained in the Church of England and has served as parish priest in various Anglican churches. Goldingay has numerous publications on biblical interpretation, authority, and theology, as well as commentaries (e.g., Daniel [WBC; Nelson, 1989]) and articles on the OT. Some of his current writing projects include an Old Testament Theology (InterVarsity) and a commentary on Isa 40-55 in the International Critical Commentary (T. & T. Clark).

Goldingay has assisted Christians in the retrieval of the OT (which he prefers to call the First Testament) as a fertile authoritative resource for Christian theology (cf. Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament [Eerdmans, 1987]). He has offered theologians an important contribution to the doctrine of Scripture that emerges from Scripture (cf. Models for Scripture [Eerdmans, 1994]) and has offered biblical exegetes ways to interpret Scripture (cf. Models for Interpretation of Scripture [Eerdmans, 1995]). His insightful discussion on how biblical narrative can help rehabilitate systematic theology (“Biblical Narrative and Systematic Theology,” in J.B. Green and M. Turner, eds., Between Two Horizons [Eerdmans, 2000]) and how biblical narrative can shape our personal story (“Biblical Story and The Way It Shapes Our Story,” JEPTA 17 [1997] 5-15) are programmatic contributions for those who want Scripture to be the primary material for theological and spiritual formation.

Goldingay is a creative, innovative, and integrative biblical scholar. His works are dialectical, dialogical, and confessional in nature. In some respects he was ahead of the curve when it came to hermeneutical concerns. He affirmed multiple meanings of texts without embracing the notion that texts have no meaning or can mean whatever the reader wants the text to mean (cf. “How Far Do Readers Make Sense? Interpreting Biblical Narrative,” Themelios 18:2 [1993] 5-10). Goldingay showed the perplexing diversity of the OT Scriptures without losing sight of their theological coherence. He demonstrated the functional authority of Scripture by way of constructive new models that emerge from Scripture. Furthermore, Goldingay found postmodernism to be liberating and helpful and not necessarily harmful for Christian interpretation. His writings have both breadth and depth stemming from his fruitful theological career, personal experiences, and ministry involvement (see his insightful one page synopsis of his life, “My Pilgrimage in Theology,” Themelios 18:3 [1993] 35). Goldingay is capable of discussing the Bible, theology and the arts, music, literature, and popular film, while reorienting the discussion back to theological issues and ministry. He understands his publications and teaching as an expression of his ministry, which stems from his calling from God.

Goldingay draws on these various contexts as he writes; thus, he weaves together a vibrant literary theological tapestry. This is most evident in his Walk On: Life, Loss, Trust, and Other Realities (Baker, 2002), an autobiographical reflection on his spiritual journey, which includes their struggle with Ann’s disabling battle with Multiple Sclerosis. This coupling and integration of church and academy is a welcome contribution that takes both seriously without dismissing either, yet recognizes that each impacts the other. One can remain a confessional Christian, participate in and affirm legitimate insights from the academy, practice critical (or better, post-critical) analysis of Scripture, and then stand in the pulpit and preach the word of God to the people of God.

Goldingay is one of a growing number of academic scholars who recognize the necessity to blur the lines between the academy and the church, integrating the academic disciplines of biblical and theological studies. Because of this, Goldingay’s works have challenged both the academic guild of biblical scholarship as well as certain Christian communities. For example, he challenges biblical scholars to recognize that biblical exegesis is always a theological endeavor because theology is an inherent concern of Scripture; therefore, exegesis should not be primarily concerned with the reconstruction of the historical events on which Scripture may be based. This is especially true of biblical narrative because “theological issues are the texts’ major concern and the exegete who fails to pay attention to them, and focuses on (for instance) merely historical questions, has not left the starting line as an exegete” (“Biblical Narrative and Systematic Theology,” 127). This is not to suggest that Goldingay is not concerned with the historical-social-cultural critical study of Scripture. These have their place in exegetical analysis, but for him exegesis involves more than historical-cultural analysis of a text.

Goldingay makes the evangelical traditionalist uneasy when he argues that we may accept the church’s doctrinal tradition, “but it to remains subject to criticism, and we do not let this tradition determine our understanding of the OT.” Goldingay says we should not hold onto “a groundless, irrational commitment to tradition just because it was tradition.” Even though evangelical tradition says Job, Ruth, Jonah, and Esther are factual stories, Goldingay will argue that an “evangelical study of the OT is quite at home concluding that actually they are God-inspired parables” (see his “Installation Address of John Goldingay, David Allan Hubbard Chair of Old Testament May 5, 1999,” available at the Fuller website).

How is Goldingay able to challenge and overturn so-called traditional evangelical concerns about authorship and composition of Scripture? Because he is firmly committed to the Scriptures and that the Scripture can speak for itself in all of its diversity. Furthermore, he allows the Scriptures and not the active or passive acceptance of philosophical concepts imported from modernity or postmodernity to establish the categories and concerns of how it wants to express truthful theology. Having said this however, he recognizes that Scripture is anchored in and refers to actual historical realities (“The Ongoing Story of Biblical Interpretation,” Churchman 112 [1998] 6-16).

In the end, though, he affirms that the reconstruction of actual historical events, as in some allusive quest for pure history, is most likely an impossibility. Thus he says of himself that he is neither a conservative nor a liberal, but an evangelical who appreciates reading various interpretations of Scripture which open him up to other viewpoints even if he disagrees with these interpretations. Goldingay feels that their insights and/or method may shed light on, or open up a plausible meaning that he would otherwise not have seen due to his particular context. Goldingay maintains we should expect Scripture to generate various authoritative meanings beyond its own context, as well as our own. This speaks positively about the role of the Holy Spirit and the nature of Scripture to shape and guide us (“Authority of Scripture,” in Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation and Criticism, ed. S.E. Porter and B.W.R. Pearson [Routledge, forthcoming] and also “Hermeneutics,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, ed. T.D. Alexander and D.W. Baker [InterVarsity, 2003]). Ultimately, living by Scripture means allowing Scripture to generate a worldview that calls us in and shapes us instead of conforming the biblical narrative to what we think is reality.

This leads to another important contribution concerning the Scriptures. In particular, Goldingay affirms that Scripture has a divine origin; it is God’s word written by human beings. Goldingay, like many contemporary hermeneuts, recognizes the importance of Scripture as an activity of communication. Scripture has meaning, and yet that meaning is conveyed through literary forms understood by those who wrote it as well as for those who where intended to receive it. Contemporary readers should interpret Scripture from its socio-cultural context and according to the genres found in the Scriptures while also expecting it to speak to them. The final form of the text is our concern as Christians. Scripture can speak beyond the confines of its own cultural contexts and ours; thus, we should be open to new meanings. But these meanings are grounded in and emerge from Scripture. Inspiration is not a guarantee for historical factual inerrancy but affirms the reliability and effectiveness of Scripture as the “witnessing tradition” that testifies to the grace and activity of God, and passes on the good news about God (Models for Scripture, 77). Therefore, the Scripture as a whole, and in its various parts, functions as an authoritative means of communication from God to his people.

Goldingay recognizes a “theological coherence” running through Scripture. This theological coherence is the gospel which constitutes good news for the readers. Understanding Scripture as a grand metanarrative held together by gospel means that “the Scriptures are documents that tell a story” (“The Authority of Scripture”), hence a witnessing tradition. Affirming the gospel as the theological coherence of the biblical metanarrative means recognizing that it is a continuation of the OT story. The OT can make important theological contributions because it also is an essential aspect of the gospel. Therefore, Scripture, with all its diverse genres, episodic stories, and teachings are held together by the theological affirmation that the one living holy God of Israel is the same Father of Jesus Christ who is Lord and Savior. This does not guarantee that one can resolve problems or gloss over disturbing scriptural passages. But the fact that Scripture, both Old and New, is the word of God, we must approach the study of Scripture with faith in God who allows us to live with the problems knowing that some day he will bring closure to the gospel story (“Installation Address”).

In Walk On Goldingay personally models how to integrate the diversity of Scripture into one’s walk with God. It is precisely this aspect of Goldingay’s commitment to Scripture that I found most beneficial as a seminary and postgraduate student. Goldingay is not only an academic OT scholar who exegetes Scripture in all of its diversity, but also a committed Christian who can faithfully integrate Scripture into his walk with the living God. Goldingay’s interpretive integration of Scripture testifies to his affirmation of the important role of Scripture’s authority in the Christian life. For those of us who are shaped by the shifting epistemological paradigm from modernity to postmodernity, and for those of us who have never felt at home with academic fundamentalism, which is built upon modernity’s epistemological foundations, we should find Goldingay’s work a helpful guide as we negotiate the current context.

Posted Nov 01, 2003