Thinking about Scripture, Practicing Scriptural Interpretation

Joel B. Green

Those of us with university or seminary training with biblical texts typically learned exegetical tools and methods in our biblical studies classes, but discussed the nature of the Bible in our theological classes. The two—what we believe about the Bible and what we do with the Bible—belonged to different parts of the curriculum. This has been true for much of the modern era and continues to this very day.

Daniel Castelo and Robert W. Wall—the one a theologian and the other a biblical scholar, coauthors of The Marks of Scripture: Rethinking the Nature of the Bible (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2019)—want to change the conversation regarding the nature of the Bible and, then, to reorient the practice of scriptural interpretation. “The premise of this book,” they write, “is this: how God’s people think about Scripture should guide how they practice it in worship, catechesis, mission, and personal devotions” (139). Their approach turns on a couple of important theological moves.

First, they inquire into the nature of Scripture (What is Scripture?), responding with a dual emphasis on Scripture as canon and as means of grace. For them, canon involves anthropological and pneumatological aspects, so that Scripture is characterized both by human activity and judgments, of human limitations and volition, and by the hallowing participation of the Holy Spirit “whose presence intends to extend the apostolic testimony of the historical Jesus into the future.” Accordingly, the historical processes by which these writings were included in the canon of Scripture were both “providential and purposeful”—“from beginning to end a creaturely process superintended by God’s sanctifying Spirit for holy ends” in the formation, life, and witness of the church and its people (5).

Castelo and Wall center their discussion, then, on Scripture as means of grace, referring to John Wesley’s understanding of the ordinary channels by which God conveys to human beings his prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. Less source of theology, foundation of faith and life, or rule for living, then, Scripture is “an auxiliary of the Holy Spirit,” “providentially shaped and constituted within the church to aid in this community’s ongoing sanctification and formation as it aims to be faithful to the memory, presence, and return of the risen One” (16). We might recognize this formulation as a gloss on 2 Tim 3:16–17: “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (CEB).

Their second theological move brings us to the core of the book’s constructive proposal. Castelo and Wall eschew for its problematic theological assumptions and ramifications an incarnational model for speaking of Scripture, one that assumes a fundamental analogy between Christ and the Bible. In its place, they urge an analogy between the Bible and the church, an ecclesial model. Accordingly, taking their cues from the Nicene Creed, they urge that the marks of the church can be extended to Scripture as well. As with the church, so Scripture can be understood as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. How this is true brings us to the heart of the book—with Castello taking up the challenge of understanding the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (in spite of both public evidence to the contrary and pervasive misunderstandings of each), and Wall extending the analogy to our understanding of Scripture’s nature and role in the divine economy.

To give one example of their reasoning, we can ask: What might it mean to identify catholicity as a mark of Scripture? Wall previews his exploration of Scripture’s catholicity by underscoring both a catholicity of readers and a catholicity of texts. “First, Scripture’s sanctified authority, its inspired usefulness and formative effects, extend to the baptized membership of every congregation of Christ’s global church without exception. Second, every Scripture without exception is appointed by God’s Spirit as a textual witness to the risen Messiah and is therefore useful in forming a knowing and loving relationship with him. Scripture is a precisely circumscribed witness, a whole gospel for the whole church” (103, italics added).

The entirety of this discussion of Scripture’s marks is stimulating and provocative. This is because it runs against the grain of our usual categories for grappling with Scripture’s ontology, because it invites so many interesting and promising side conversations, and because it challenges scriptural interpretation within and for the church that deprioritizes some of the accredited assumptions and standards of modern biblical studies. With regard to this latter, the chief culprit Castelo and Wall identify is the pervasive notion that the meaning of a text is bounded by its origins—that is, by the intent of the redactor(s) or author(s). This is not to say that Castelo and Wall are anti-critical; indeed, in their final chapter on “The Church’s Practice of Scripture” they press at some length the importance of a range of methods familiar to scholars of the Bible. Nevertheless, they distinguish their interpretive interests from those of the academy:

While modern criticism targets the communicative intentions of these ancient authors for their first audiences, we seek to move this interpretive target forward to a post-biblical setting when the church received and reread these same texts for a new day; by doing so we recognize the illuminating presence of the Spirit, who cued their canonization and continuing use of Scripture. Reading biblical texts as canonical means reading them again and again for each and every new day, but only according to the church’s communicative intention: to form congregations who know God and who love God and all their neighbors deeply and actively. (139–40, italics original)

These interests lead to a curriculum for Scripture study that emphasizes the formation of faithful readers, distinguished by their humility; by interpretive practices that take time, that are deliberate, that are located within a community, and that are goal-oriented; by an orientation to the God of Scripture; by accounting for the intracanonical relationships among Old and New Testament witnesses to the triune God and his plan to restore the whole of creation; and by attending to the mutually formative relationship shared by Scripture and the Rule of Faith.

Castelo and Wall have given us much to ponder, and I can only hope that their book will find conversation partners across the widest possible audience. The Marks of Scripture would work well as a textbook, of course, but it is also easy to imagine how this book might provoke productive discussion among congregational leaders, in an adult education class, in a clergy reading group, or in a group of theologians and biblical scholars concerned with the formation of new generations of Christian leaders.

Posted Apr 26, 2019

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