The Bible: God's Gift to the Church of the Twenty-First Century

By Hagner, Donald A. | Currents in Theology and Mission, February 2008 | Go to article overview

The Bible: God's Gift to the Church of the Twenty-First Century


Hagner, Donald A., Currents in Theology and Mission


In the first lecture we looked at the state of the Bible today, focusing on its loss of authority because of the influence of a particular kind of historical criticism and because of the rise of postmodernism. We ended with a brief discussion of an emerging approach to the Bible called theological interpretation. In the present lecture we look further at theological interpretation and raise the question of exegesis within theological interpretation. This will lead us again to insist on the importance of exegesis, especially for those who aspire to take the Bible seriously, which in turn will cause us to take up some loose ends from our discussion of postmodernism. Finally, we will look at some practical suggestions for the church in light of the content of the two lectures together.

Theological interpretation: promise and peril?

Nothing has been as heartwarming in the field of biblical studies over the past few years as the new emphasis on the theological interpretation of scripture. Thanks in part to insights of postmodernism, believing interpreters of the Bible now have permission--with all other readers of all other texts--to come to the task of interpreting the Bible with their faith presuppositions up front, so to speak. No one, we now realize, comes to the task of interpretation as a blank page, with objectivity and neutrality. Because the Bible consists of documents of faith, faith on the part of the interpreter may be seen to be not a disadvantage but an advantage enabling a more effective understanding. Texts of faith open themselves up to readers of faith. They make themselves accessible to contemporary readers who are like the implied readers of these texts because they share in the faith and commitment of the church. "The implied interpreter of the Christian Scripture is a disciple," writes Markus Bockmuehl. (1) And we can learn a lot more from the inside than from the outside. As Bockmuehl strikingly puts it, "there are limits to how much you can usefully say about the stained glass windows of King's College Chapel without actually going in to see them from the inside." (2)

Theological interpretation brings readers' aims into play in the process of interpretation. The primary aim of the believing reader is to hear the voice of God in the scriptures--and not merely to hear but to hear responsively, in a transforming way, and in a way that issues forth in obedience. Thus theological interpretation desires to approach scripture "on its own terms," that is, in keeping with its own intentions. Readers who engage in theological interpretation are receptive readers. We are dealing primarily here with reading with openness to the claims of the text. Theological readers accept the whole of the canon as sacred scripture, presuppose its essential unity, and in its interpretation employ the "rule of faith." the tradition of interpretation established by the Christian community from the earliest centuries, but also the community within which interpreters are presently located. Another way of making the same point is to say that theological interpreters are those who "indwell the world of the text" (3) or who "inhabit Scripture's own story." (4)

Now, without question all of this sounds appealing--at least to believing interpreters--but does it not raise important questions that beg answering? The one that springs immediately to my mind is whether there is not a danger that the believer may impose his or her theological meaning upon otherwise "innocent" texts. The circularity of the interpretive process, where one gains theology from text, tradition, and community and then reads it back into the text, also comes to mind. And there are other questions and unresolved issues.

The increasing popularity and significance of theological interpretation is evident from the publication of the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids and London: Baker/SPCK, 2005). …

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