Theology Exam: A Practical Canonical Approach to the Authority and Interpretation of Christian Scripture

Charles J. Scalise

The time for that dreaded final exam is at hand. Perhaps the course may be called “Systematic Theology 1” or “Introduction to Constructive Theology,” but virtually all Protestant theological schools teach a course in which students are required to deal with the problem of the authority of Scripture. Without a magisterium—the authoritative teaching office of the Catholic church—Protestants have historically appealed to the authority of Scripture, along with some form of community tradition and personal religious experience, to warrant their response to theological problem of authority.

Identifying the Question

In this class students commonly argue vigorously with one another—and perhaps even with the professor—about the Bible and its place in Christian thought. So, if the final exam reflects the dynamics of the class, we can count on finding at least one major question that addresses the theological problem of the authority and interpretation of Scripture. This question frequently produces more-than-usual anxiety for students, especially those whose critical study of the Bible has challenged the “first naïveté” of their presuppositions about what the Bible is and does (leading to Paul Ricoeur’s call for a “second naïveté”). Alas, it turns out that interpreting the Bible with intellectual honesty and integrity—particularly in postmodernity—is a more complex task than faithful Bible study teachers earlier led us to believe.

Theology professors sometimes adhere to a “party line” on this question. Then the students’ task is to learn the party line and reflect it in their responses. The following examples might seem familiar, depending upon the social location of the theological school. On the one hand, an “A” grade may be in the offing if a student can demonstrate understanding of (1) how a neo-classical process hermeneutic of Scripture combines with advocacy for peace and justice, or (2) how a correlational-contextual hermeneutic leads to emancipative praxis, or (3) how the hermeneutical priority of the poor warrants a theology of liberation, or (4) how a feminist (or womanist) hermeneutic deconstructs the patriarchal interpretation of Scripture.

On the other hand, an “A” may be in the wings if a student can demonstrate understanding of (1) how a narrative hermeneutic connects the stories of Scripture and those of the Christian community, or (2) how a grammatical hermeneutic or a “hermeneutical spiral” (cf. G. Osbourne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation [InterVarsity, 1991]) warrants a biblically based propositional theology, or (3) how a progressive dispensational hermeneutic (for conservative evangelicals only) or a Kuyperian hermeneutic (for Dutch Reformed evangelicals only) links the proper interpretation of the Bible with the pertinent worldview, or (4) how a missional hermeneutic of Scripture networks the emerging church with the culture of postmodernity.

Besides describing these complicated hermeneutical options, the professor in this particular theology class proves to be rather odd. She maintains that the Bible’s relationship to theology is something like the relationship between reading a novel and literary criticism (an “aesthetic hermeneutic”). The purpose of good literary criticism is to make one a better reader of the novel, short story, or poem; and the purpose of good theology is to make one a better reader of the stories and poetry of Holy Scripture. The professor claims that the history of Protestant hermeneutics may be understood as “the eclipse of biblical narrative” (cf. H. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics [Yale University Press, 1974]). Like a realistic novel, the art of biblical narrative (R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative [Basic, 1983]) is to portray the character of an agent, who in Christian Scripture is God revealed in Jesus Christ.

In addition, the professor believes that the separation between doctrinal and practical theology is an academic distinction that should be transcended, as theology and praxis are thoroughly integrated. So, hybrid approaches to connecting Scripture, doctrine, and practice are encouraged. One practical consequence of this view for the struggling student is that the exam question on the authority and interpretation of Scripture demands an essay responding to a mini-case study, rather than an exercise in rarified doctrinal discourse.

So, on today’s dreaded final exam, Question One reads: Write a thoughtful theological response to the following situation: A bright and articulate friend confesses to you that she is undergoing a faith crisis as a result of her study of Bible and theology in seminary. She painfully observes, “I feel like my carefully borrowed ‘biblical theology’ is collapsing like a house of cards. How could I have missed that so much in the Bible is poetry, rather than propositions—dreams and visions, rather than just historical events? Jesus taught his disciples in parables, which need to be read as stories, rather than history. I do not know whether God is revealed in the events behind the Scripture or somehow within the text of Scripture. Of course, we cannot recover the events behind the Bible directly; so we have to depend upon their ambiguous and uncertain historical reconstruction. My faith has become dependent upon the dubious and debatable historical reconstruction of revelatory events” (Fuller Theological Seminary, Final Examination, Systematic Theology 1 [ST501], July 5, 2002).

The remainder of this article examines some possible theological responses to the crisis of this student, whose “name is Legion,” but whom we will call Leslie.

Understanding Leslie’s Theological Crisis

The biblical theology Leslie brought to seminary assumed an understanding of the truth of Scripture that had already shifted away from a first naïveté that saw all the statements of Scripture as uninterpreted “facts.” Of course, Leslie recognized that when Scripture calls our Lord, “the Lamb of God,” it is not declaring that Christ is woolly with a cute little tail, but rather is a figure of speech.

Likewise, the street of “pure gold” that runs through the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:21) offers an image of how vastly different heaven will be than our earthly experience. It is as if the interstate that runs through an American city were paved with gold! Therefore, it is an irrelevant question to ask whether the streets of heaven will be paved with 14 carat or 24 carat gold. Such a question confuses a biblical image with a mineralogical question. To ask this question makes what philosophers call a “category mistake” and misunderstands the meaning of Scripture.

The Facts of Revelation Approach

Although Leslie’s biblical theology does not belong to the “facts of revelation” category, many conservative evangelicals still subscribe to the nineteenth-century view that the Bible is a “storehouse of facts,” made popular by theologians like C. Hodge (1797-1878). This view treats the Bible like a vast collection of “scientific” evidence that “demands a verdict” (cf. J. McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict Fully Updated to Answer the Questions Challenging Christians Today [Thomas Nelson, 1999]). Such thinking often unconsciously simplifies the Enlightenment evidentialism of F. Bacon (1561-1626). Biblical statements are reduced to “simple facts,” believed to be capable of verification without attention to the historical and cultural contexts in which the texts were composed, transmitted, and interpreted. These facts are then correlated with a closed propositional view of Christian doctrine. Such systems are often shaped by Scottish commonsense realism, which viewed rational, empirical theology as a way of defending the truth of Christianity against the Enlightenment skepticism of D. Hume (1711-1776).

“Facts” that do not fit into this paradigm—like the varying number of cockcrows during Jesus’ trial and the two different accounts of Judas’s death (Matt 27:5 and Acts 1:18)—are “harmonized.” This process eventually creates the irony of a New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (G.L. Archer Jr. [Zondervan, 2001]). An approach that distinguishes between the truth of Holy Scripture and the accuracy of the details of the Bible offers a helpful alternative to resolving these difficulties.

The Events of Revelation Approach

Leslie’s “carefully borrowed biblical theology” reflects the events of revelation approach to connecting the Bible and theology. This view relies upon a theological understanding of revelation that unveils the truth, making known that which has been hidden. Revelation is the history of salvation, the saving acts of God in history. The Bible is the record of these historical events. Instead of factual propositions, revelation is interpretation of specific historical events. God’s people are redeemed by God’s saving acts in history, not by their assent to rational biblical doctrines or eternal truths. This view became popular during the mid-twentieth century through biblical theologians like G.E. Wright, R.H. Fuller, and O. Cullman. The decline of the events of revelation approach was described and analyzed in B. Childs’s Biblical Theology in Crisis (Westminster, 1970).

Leslie’s crisis shows the inadequacy of restricting God’s revelation in Holy Scripture to historical events alone. This limitation reflects the dominance of historical critical interpretation over all other forms of biblical interpretation. The stories in the Bible clearly convey God’s revelation to people through dreams and visions, in proverbs and parables. Why then should historical interpretation become the primary way to interpret a parable or poem in Scripture, rather than literary interpretation? A final difficulty that led to the demise of the events of revelation route was the reduction of all revelation in the Bible to events in history. God’s self-revelation moved from Scripture itself to events that Christians could only access through the historically reconstructed and debated “records” in the Bible. So, what theological assistance can a thoughtful and caring seminarian offer to Leslie?

Developing a Practical Canonical Hermeneutic

Among many possible responses, one fruitful direction is offered by a modified version of the canonical approach to biblical interpretation of B. Childs (see my From Scripture to Theology: A Canonical Journey into Hermeneutics [InterVarsity, 1996]; and “The ‘Progress’ of Some Hermeneutical Pilgrims,” Catalyst 24, no. 2 [1998] 1-2.). The Christian canon is not merely a list of books, but an historical and theological process through which the Bible was shaped and is interpreted as authoritative Scripture for the Christian community. Although historical-critical interpretation is important, it is not the goal of Christian biblical interpretation. Theological exegesis takes place in the context of the canon and emphasizes postcritically the final form of the text (the form from which our translations are primarily made). As J. Barton rightly observes, Childs’s canonical approach comes “quite close to how many ‘ordinary’ Christian readers instinctively approach the Bible” (cf. “Unity and Diversity in the Biblical Canon” in Die Einheit der Schrift und die Vielfalt des Kanons/The Unity of Scripture and the Diversity of the Canon,” ed. J. Barton and M. Wolter [de Gruyter, 2003] 22).

How might this look in practice? For example, in the last chapter of Amos, the book dramatically shifts from God’s total judgment to God’s promises of salvation. According to historical-critical interpretation, the “historical Amos” (i.e., the Amos reconstructed by methods of historical-critical research) was a prophet of gloom and doom, who proclaimed God’s message of judgment upon the people of Israel. Historical-critical scholars have concluded that the promises of salvation (Amos 9:11-15, also possibly 9:8) were later additions to the book. This approach leaves readers with peripheral promises of salvation, like a P.S. added to the book at a later date.

In contrast, a canonical approach emphasizes the final form of the text, which clearly includes both the prophecies of judgment and the prophecies of salvation in the book of Amos. The canonical approach focuses upon the book’s oracular messages rather than simply reconstructing historical events. Whereas the historical Amos might only have preached gloom and doom, the canonical Amos (the Amos portrayed in the final form of the book) preached both judgment and salvation.

As Leslie laments that her faith has become “dependent upon the dubious and debatable historical reconstruction of revelatory events,” how will you respond? What alternative approaches to the relationship between Scripture and God’s revelation might offer Leslie hope and undergird her future ministries of preaching and teaching? May you know God’s blessings, as you display the results of your “theology exam” in Christian ministry.

Posted Feb 01, 2008