Scripture, Theology, and Hermeneutics: A Review Essay

Joel B. Green

Earlier in this decade, B. Childs wrote of the “iron curtain” separating the two disciplines, biblical studies and systematic theology (xvi). Evidence of this seemingly impregnable wall is difficult to overlook-whether one is the theological student searching for ways to connect one part of the seminary curriculum with the other or the scholar trained according to accredited standards that guard the one discipline from what are typically regarded as the naive or imperialistic efforts of the other.

Of course, the segregation of theological studies and biblical studies is a relatively new innovation in the life of the people of God and it represents a significant if (at least arguably) unfortunate shift of emphasis. Karl Barth is often remembered for his programmatic expression of the task of theology: “dogmatics does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets” (16). What is haunting about Barth’s formulation is that the past two centuries of biblical studies have left both the church and those engaged in constructive theology with little access to “what the apostles and prophets said.” The “apostles and prophets” have instead come under the almost exclusive propriety of academic biblical studies, which alone possesses the methodological and hermeneutical keys to unlock their riches. In spite of the variety of its incarnations, the branch of study known as “biblical theology” itself has typically been so enamored with its own disciplinary integrity that it has been little-oriented toward a more constructive theological enterprise. It is surely to Barth’s credit, then, that his own Church Dogmatics seeks as fully as it does to weave together serious engagement with Scripture and the larger theological enterprise. At the close of the twentieth century, however, “biblical scholars” and “theologians” are rarely seen as “two of a kind.” It has not always been so and, if a small but growing trickle of publications is any portent of things to come, neither must it be so always.

From Scripture to Theology: A Canonical Journey into Hermeneutics is presented by its author, C.J. Scalise, as “…a readable and reliable guide to a scriptural way through the maze of contemporary reflection and speculation on how thinking Christians can move from the Bible to doctrine” (9). In fact, Scalise has provided a valuable orientation both to the theological task and to a canonical approach to the interpretation of Scripture.

Theology, he affirms, is a second-order task, “the church’s critical self-examination of the language it uses to speak of the mystery of God” (16). This means that the theological task involves something other than merely repeating or reshuffling statements found in and taken from the Bible, though the Bible does function as Scripture and canon as the written Word of God against which the church’s language about God is tested. In dialogue with other, key ways of reflecting on the nature of revelation, Scalise develops an approach to engaging the Bible very much indebted to the “canonical approach” of B.S. Childs. This approach does not accord privilege to the facts of Scripture or events behind the text of the Bible, but prioritizes the final form of the text in its canonical form. Accordingly, Scripture serves as both source and standard for teaching about the Christian faith.

Scalise’s book is a gold mine for beginning students of theology, given its rare combination of simplicity of expression and precision of thought. This is true even though it is less helpful in answering the question it has posed for itself, How do we start from the Bible and end up with Christian doctrine? That is, when it comes to making the transition from canonical hermeneutics to doctrinal exposition, Scalise develops the doctrine of the Trinity in a way that does not make obvious the importance of the canonical approach he has articulated so well. The Bible, he says, provides “warrants” for the doctrine of the Trinity, but, in this short book, he is unable to demonstrate, based on a canonical reading of the relevant texts, how this is so.

In two recent books, F. Watson has insisted that “biblical interpretation should concern itself primarily with the theological issues raised by the biblical texts within our contemporary ecclesial, cultural and socio-political contexts” (Text, Church, and World, vii). In the earlier book , Watson is concerned to burst those constraints placed on biblical interpretation by the years upon years of its captivity to the academy. What is needed instead is a mode of interpretation that reaches beyond the biblical text regarded as a self-enclosed artifact, so as to correlate the text with the realities to which it bears witness and within which it is read.

The more recent of Watson’s books, Text and Truth, is actually a series of essays and, therefore, lacks the internal coherence and argument of his earlier study. Roughly speaking, the first section of the book provides a series of investigations into theological hermeneutics, wherein Watson seeks to reorient interpretation around “a determinate communicative intention” that, he argues, is embedded in the text. Such an intent is synonymous with “literal meaning,” and this has as its primary locus not a history behind the text nor a reader in front of the text, but the truth about God. A second, major section of the book is devoted to the ultimate, theological coherence of the two Testaments-a prerequisite to any proper understanding of the fundamental structure of the Christian Bible and, therefore, to a genuinely biblical theology. These sections correspond to, and thus attempt to address, the two, largely institutional barriers to the practice of a biblical theology that would place biblical hermeneutics and interpretation at the disposal of theological concerns-namely, the disciplinary division between systematic theology and professional biblical scholarship on the one hand, and, on the other, the partition that separates Old and New Testament studies.

No person engaged in contemporary discussion about the theological interpretation of Scripture can overlook the hegemony historical criticism and the historical critical method have enjoyed within biblical studies since the turn of the eighteenth century. Christopher R. Seitz, professor of OT at Yale University, expresses awareness of the diverse origins and complex transmission of those materials that would eventually reach their final shape in the canon of Scripture. For him, though, the sum of those disparate parts has its own integrity and rationale, and on this basis Seitz launches his examination of the “canonical shaping” of the Old and New Testaments and of their theology. “Having labored for two centuries to free the Bible from dogmatic overlay,” he writes, “Protestant and Catholic critics alike should ‘concede victory.’ Now we must try to generate a theology…” (15).

His work, Word without End, comprises a series of essays gathered under three headings. The first is “Biblical Theology,” an assortment of nine, wide-ranging chapters concerned fundamentally to articulate the location of the OT in relationship to the New and, thus, in relation to Christian theological witness and the church’s theological enterprise. Part two of Seitz’ work is devoted to exegesis, especially of the Book of Isaiah, though situating that book in canonical conversation. Part three, “Practice,” is a tantalizing but brief congregation of exemplars of how particular issues (e.g., God-language and human sexuality) might be addressed in biblical-theological analysis.

As one might anticipate from the title, Seitz’ particular concern is with the ongoing theological role of the OT within the Christianity community. Addressing the theological problem of two Testaments is a necessary facet of resolving the estrangement of Scripture and theology. What holds the canon together for Seitz is not some sort of Scripture principle or theological abstraction, but the God who covenanted with Israel and raised Jesus from the dead. Christians who for whatever reason, whether explicitly or functionally, downplay or deny the ongoing theological witness of the OT thus cut themselves off from more than interesting or important “background material.” At stake, rather, is the fulness of God’s self-disclosure-that is, the possibility that we might erroneously imagine that we have access to a “‘person-event Jesus of Nazareth’ apart from the claims of the triune God” (45).

The integrity and role of Scripture is thus grounded in the two questions, Who is speaking? and Who is being addressed? Scripture is not a people’s attempt to understand God, but God’s own self-disclosure: “The two-testament witness renders not a great code, but God as he truly is, without remainder, save that blocked out by a darkened will and mind” (14). To grapple with Scripture, then, requires more than an up-to-date library card, but rather a living relationship with God, on the basis of which we come to Scripture with a proper respect, in gratitude, ready to embrace and to be embraced into God’s own ways and work.

A text of a different sort has been jointly penned by theologians G. O’Collins and D. Kendall. Although not particularly concerned with hermeneutics in general or the specifics of textual interpretation, their book, The Bible for Theology, is interested in the question, “What effects should biblical texts produce in theology?” (2). Recognizing the abyss separating scriptural scholars and systematic theologians, they propose a series of ten principles for moving from biblical materials to theological positions. Lest their agenda sound too much like a step-by-step, pragmatic approach to theological hermeneutics, we should list a few of these principles-first, “the principle of faithful hearing,” which urges theologians to be regular and faithful hearers of the inspired texts; the second, “the principle of active hearing,” which encourages theologians to an appropriation of Scripture within the contexts of prayer, study, and praxis; the sixth, “the principle of metathemes and metanarratives,” which orients theologians to the cumulative story of Scripture; and the tenth, “the principle of inculturation.”

In The Bible for Theology, O’Collins and Kendall devote a lengthy, opening chapter to articulating their ten principles. This discussion situates their efforts within contemporary hermeneutical discussion, suggesting, for example, where they are open to cultural criticism and intercultural dialogue, but closed to the excesses of poststructuralism. They also point to such constraints on theological interpretation as those provided by the classic creeds, the precision offered by interchange of a philosophical nature, and the eschatological provisionality of the Scriptures. Following this initial chapter, O’Collins and Kendall test their principles with reference to particular issues in Christology, soteriology, the doctrine of God, and ecclesiology. Throughout, these authors place a premium on the appropriation or actualization of biblical texts, and on the need for theologians to subject themselves to these texts, while also calling for its “…truth claims to be examined in light of a universal context of worship, common concerns for truth, and worldwide experiences of suffering and injustice” (23). Only rarely, though, does one find in The Bible for Theology a concern for reshaping the discipline of biblical studies itself.

Finally, an interesting and provocative book has been written by Episcopalian NT scholar S.E. Fowl, Engaging the Scriptures. Distinguishing, often sharply, between the sort of biblical interpretation sponsored among biblical scholars and that in which the church must be engaged, Fowl argues that “Christian interpretation of Scripture is primarily an activity of Christian communities in which they seek to generate and embody their interpretations of scripture so that they may fulfill their ends of worshipping and living faithfully before the triune God” (161). Two points are crucial to Fowl’s account of theological hermeneutics. First, he rejects a “determinate” model of biblical interpretation (in which meaning is conceived as a property of the text) as well as an “anti-determinate” model (which is dedicated to opening texts continuously to further interpretation) in favor of “underdetermined” interpretation. In this view, we are called upon to explicate textual meaning in terms of our varied and diverse interpretive aims, interests, and practices; in our ongoing struggle to live and worship faithfully before God, the biblical interpretation shapes and is shaped by our practices and dispositions.

Does this approach not open the Scriptures to our recruiting them to our own ends? How can we certify beforehand that we will not interpret the Bible to underwrite and justify our sin? This is the second of Fowl’s primary concerns, and he devotes the bulk of the book to a constellation of issues raised by such questions. At the outset, Fowl insists that no method, no form of biblical criticism, once adopted, can certify beforehand that the Bible will not be abused. What is required, rather, are Christian communities-wherein the practices of reconciliation and forgiveness are fostered and the common life of Christians is oriented toward the forming and nurturing of the practical wisdom requisite for the faithful generation and embodiment of scriptural interpretation. For Fowl, the community context for biblical interpretation is intertwined with the practice of discerning the Spirit’s activity around us and, thus, our recognition of the role of the Spirit in interpretation.

Thus does Fowl call for a thorough revisioning of the practice of biblical interpretation in relation to the vitality of Christian community. Puzzles remain, however. What is the role of “doctrine” in Fowl’s account? To put it more starkly, Fowl refers repeatedly to the “character of God” and “the triune God,” without specifying how these phrases receive their content. If biblical studies is to be revolutionized in the way Fowl recommends, does his prescription also reach to theological studies? Most importantly, why does Fowl not trace the life of a contemporary community of the faithful (perhaps the one in which he is active?) in which the process of engaging the Scriptures to which he gives such eloquent witness is itself embodied?

All such questions aside, this small inventory of recent books on the relations among these theological disciplines-biblical studies and systematic theology-portend a growing dissatisfaction with the now-traditional segregation of these areas of study. Perhaps the iron curtain of which Professor Childs has written is eroding.

Works Cited

K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1.1 (T. & T. Clark, 1975).
B. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Fortress, 1992).
O’Collins, G. and D. Kendall, The Bible for Theology: Ten Principles for the Theological Use of Scripture (New York: Paulist, 1997).
S.E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation (Blackwell, 1998).
C.J. Scalise, From Scripture to Theology: A Canonical Journey into Hermeneutics (InterVarsity, 1996).
C.R. Seitz, Word without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Eerdmans, 1998).
F. Watson, Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Eerdmans, 1994).
F. Watson, Text and Truth. Redefining Biblical Theology (Eerdmans, 1997).

Posted Nov 01, 1998