Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Latest issue of Princeton Theological Review dedicated to "theological exegesis"

The latest edition of the Princeton Theological Review has taken the occasion of B.S. Childs' death to focus on the question of "theological exegesis." You can download it here. In the Prolegomena, Peter Kline succinctly indicates the challenge and promise of recent developments:
Recent scholarly and ecclesial discussions about Scripture have invigorated an interest in what has come to be called theological exegesis or theological interpretation. With no denominational, institutional, or departmental home, this movement (if it can be called such) is both elusive and full of promise. It has brought together circles that often remain apart: Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, theological and biblical scholars, clergy and academics; yet the lasting impact on any of these circles remains to be seen. Many (even its advocates) are still asking, what is theological exegesis? As of yet, there is no uniform answer, but a minimal definition is possible. Rather than a particular method, hermeneutic, or doctrinal outcome, theological exegetes share a common conviction about the location of Scripture: the church. The Bible is not primarily the property of the academy, the culture, or the individual, but of the one Lord who gathers, upbuilds, and sends the people of God. Theological exegesis treats Scripture accordingly; it is discipleship in the mode of reading. [*]
I would hasten to add, as Murry Rae's contribution makes clear, that the key is attention to Scripture's subject matter. Not only does this accord Scripture its true function as vehicle of revelation, it provides us with the proper stance for working out how to go about the gritting business of actual exegesis.

Of particular interest is Daniel Driver's essay, which, according to the Prolegomena, promises to demonstrate the overarching continuity of Childs' career.

[*] PTR 38 (2008), 5.

15 comments:

John C. Poirier said...

I'll just air my objections to the term "theological exegesis" once again: if it is to be defined, as this quotation says, in terms of understanding Scripture as belonging to the Church, then why not call it "ecclesial exegesis"? Calling it "theological exegesis" makes it sound like other modes of reading are *not* theological at all, which is plainly ridiculous. Was Dodd's exegetical spadework on the kerygma not theological? What about Ben Meyer's *Christus Faber* stuff?

If you ask me, this appropriation of the term "theological" is unexcusable, as it only makes an appeal to the pious sentiment of certain readers by excluding a huge and otherwise obvious middle ground.

But when has this crowd ever been interested in being fair?

Phil Sumpter said...

John, John, John, you're not reading closely enough.

Kline says the the church is the location of biblical exegesis, not the owner the Bible. As kline states, the Bible is "the property of ... the one Lord," not the church.

Who's being unfair?

John C. Poirier said...

You're right . . . So let's put it another way.

Go to Kline's last paragraph. There he sums up "theological exegesis" more or less in these words: "For the Christian church, the Bible is the very Word of God." Should a claim like that be allowed to sort out what's theological and what isn't? The claim that Scripture is the Word of God is not objectionable from the Reformed perspective, of course, but from the grounds of a Barr-style attempt to let the Bible define its own grounds and make its own claims, it's *very* objectionable. For the New Testament, the *gospel* (*viz.* the kerygma) is the "word of the Lord" (see Michael Pahl's superb JSNT article). The conceit that Scripture is the Word of God is not scriptural, in terminology *or* concept. Yet uncritical concepts like that seem to be the driving force behind "theological exegesis". Why isn't exegesis that is theological, but which reads the Bible on the terms of its own self-understanding, also called "theological exegesis"? (In the past, I have made similar objections to Childs’s narrowing of the term "Scripture".)

To bring out the artificiality of the "theological exegesis" school's use of "theological" as a self-label, I simply ask: Would any of the practitioners of "theological exegesis" (so-called) count James Barr among their number? The answer of course is "no". In fact, they delight in using him as a foil for everything in their self-definition. But why isn't Barr a practitioner of "theological exegesis"? Consider Barr's book devoted to deconstructing Barth's reading of Genesis 1-3? Isn't Barr's more historical-critical exegesis of Genesis 1-3, offered in that book, just as "theological" as Barth's reading? In point of fact, if it weren't for the theological payoff, Barr probably wouldn't have written that book at all. In reality, Barr's exegesis in most of his books is theological in one way or another.

Kline sums up Daniel Treier's contribution as a suggestion that "it is attention to divine agency that makes exegesis truly theological". From a perspective beyond the special interests of the "theological exegesis" school, that suggestion sounds wholly agreeable. The problem with expressing it that way, however, lies in the assumptions that seem to hide behind the term "agency", as the "theological exegesis" crowd seems to think in terms of a divine agency in *the hermeneutical task*, rather than (or in addition to) the divine agency explicitly lying behind the soteriological events narrated in the Bible. But where is the justification for *that* further narrowing of the term? Shouldn't it be the theological nature of the subject matter that defines what is and isn't "theological exegesis"?

Phil Sumpter said...

The mere category "Word of God" does not, on its own, as if self-evident, determine "what is theological." You need to unpack what the category means, and to do that you need to read what the particular authors say. If you know Barth, you'll know that calling the Bible "the Word of God" is a complex issue, not simple. The Church Fathers called the Bible the rule of faith, as well the as the reality to which it points. There is subtelty involved here.

"Theological exegesis" is not a school, as the quote makes clear.

You say: Isn't Barr's more historical-critical exegesis of Genesis 1-3, offered in that book, just as "theological" as Barth's reading?

Maybe, it depends on what you understand by "theological exegesis" and how you go about it. That is the point at issue. No one is assuming a self-evident definition, as the quote makes abundantly clear. Those who disagree with Barr provide arguments, they don't just assert it.

You say: Shouldn't it be the theological nature of the subject matter that defines what is and isn't "theological exegesis"?

Totally, which is precisely the argument used by many involved in theological exegesis. The theological subject matter is more than an event, it is a living person who still speaks.

You may want to check out this post: http://christthetruth.wordpress.com/2008/02/06/preaching-of-the-word-of-god-is-the-word-of-god/. Even the blog title says it all.

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

With reference to whether Barr's exegesis of Genesis 1-3 should be called "theological exegesis", you write: "Maybe, it depends on what you understand by 'theological exegesis' and how you go about it. That is the point at issue. No one is assuming a self-evident definition, as the quote makes abundantly clear. Those who disagree with Barr provide arguments, they don't just assert it." But raising a question about what one means by "theological exegesis" is exactly the point I'm trying to make. The problem lies in the use of this label to refer to one way of reading that is theological, *exclusive* of other ways of reading which happen to be equally theological! This artificial narrowing of the term "theological" gives the false impression that those who want to read Scripture in a way faithful to its theological role must do it one way and not another. In that regard, I think the current use of the label "theological exegesis" is extremely unfair. My reference to Barr's reading was meant to make that point--the point, that is, that a strictly historical, intentionalist, and referential reading of the theological content of Scripture has just as much right to be called "theological exegesis" as any other approach has. The quotation from Kline does not assume "a self-evident definition" in that it sees a lot of leeway in what counts, but the whole point of having the term *at all* is to use it to denote a reading practice contradistinctive to the historical method. It is this contradistinctive use of the term that provides its main content, and that is what I'm talking about. Every essay in that issue of *Princeton Theological Review* makes an assertion about what "theological exegesis" or "reading theologically" is in a way that excludes (or greatly qualifies) the historical method--many of them with direct reference to a bibliology that considers Scripture to be the "Word of God", implying that reading on the terms of any other bibliology does not qualify as a "reading theologically". You write, "Those who disagree with Barr provide arguments, they don't just assert it", but while some *do* argue against Barr (often misunderstanding his points), the rhetorical impact of the term "theological exegesis" is clearly calculated to steer people clear of the options Barr outlines *without* engaging his arguments.

The tactics offered in defense of "theological exegesis", in my view, are rather low, sometimes bordering on a problem in professional ethics. There is a very serious problem here, with supporters of "theological exegesis" writing in a way that defines an old-fashioned historical-critical approach to biblical theology out of existence. This was the case, for example, with Hays's article in the first issue of the *Journal of Theological Interpretation*, where Hays's twelve-point program is defined over against the straw targets of Wayne Meeks, Hekki Raisanen, and Hector Avalos--all of whom notoriously attacked the confessionalist approach to biblical studies--as if those who don't do things as the "theological exegesis" crowd does them are keeping company with those who altogether spurn the use of the Bible for theology! Hays should be ashamed of himself for arguing in this fashion.

All I'm asking, for, Phil, is a little bit more fair play. It's one thing to think that one should read the Bible along the lines of the "theological exegesis" definition (even if it's a loose definition). It's quite another to say that if you don't read that way, then your readings are not "theological" *per se*. I see repeated indications from these people that they aren't interested in playing fairly.

As for whether preaching the Word of God (understood, in this formula, as "Scripture") *is* the Word of God, the link that you provide does not offer a good argument for that position. I'm frankly not interested in what Bullinger and Luther say about the subject. If they misunderstand the Bible (and they constantly do), then we should start with what the Bible itself says. On this, the webpage in question cites three NT passages: 1 Thes 2:13; 1 Pet 1:23-25; and Heb 13:7. The first two of these passages support the view that I have already mentioned, and the one argued by Pahl in *JSNT*: "Word of God" refers to the *kerygma*. When reference is made to proclaiming the "Word of God" in this connection, it means preaching the kerygma--it does not mean that preaching from Scripture *per se* is considered preaching the "Word of God". The verse from Hebrews is less clear, but presumably it refers to delivering a prophetic utterance in the congregation, although it may refer to preaching the *kerygma*. The bottom line is this: the notion that Scripture is the "Word of God" is *not* a scriptural notion (and neither is the idea that *preaching* Scripture is the "Word of God"), and when we make this idea an organizing principle for our bibliology, we can't help but get things seriously wrong.

Phil Sumpter said...

John,

The problem lies in the use of this label to refer to one way of reading that is theological , *exclusive* of other ways of reading which happen to be equally theological! Which way? Everyone is open about the fact that the category is a work in process. The fact that the majority are critical of historical criticism has to do with the fact that the majority find the argument convincing, not due a terminological slight of hand.

The quotation from Kline does not assume "a self-evident definition" in that it sees a lot of leeway in what counts, but the whole point of having the term *at all* is to use it to denote a reading practice contradistinctive to the historical method

Nope. von Rad and Bultmann are also considered theological exegetes.

Every essay in that issue of *Princeton Theological Review* makes an assertion about what "theological exegesis" or "reading theologically" is in a way that excludes (or greatly qualifies) the historical method

Sure, that's becuase this position convinces them and they give arguments. It may appear as if "theological exegesis" is not historical critical by defintion, but that is due to that fact that the majority who want to read the text to know God happen to think the hc is limited. It has nothing to do with the definition itself. And they can hardly be accused of subterfuge just because they are in the majority. Which is why this statement:

the rhetorical impact(sorry, you're just being hyper-sensitive) of the term "theological exegesis" is clearly calculated to steer people clear of the options Barr outlines *without* engaging his arguments.

... is clearly hyper-sensitive and totally ungrounded. As your reference to Hay's article demonstrates. Hays quite plainly states that his is a subjective proposal open to rebuttal and that actually identifying what kind of exegesis is "theological" may be difficult but nevertheless he wants to provide some clarity. This flies in the face of your accusations, both now and the last time you mentioned it a year ago. Who is being unfair?

It's one thing to think that one should read the Bible along the lines of the "theological exegesis" definition (even if it's a loose definition). It's quite another to say that if you don't read that way, then your readings are not "theological" *per se*

Which way? There is diversity. The reason that the majority of scholars have a problem with historical criticism is because, when they think about it, that is the conclusion they come to. No conspiracy here. Perhaps you should write your own article on theological exegesis and submit it to the PTR. I see know reason why they should reject a minority voice, unless the arguments just don't hold water.

Your final point: kerygma means proclamation, i.e. a verbal activity. You can't separate witness and reality, as my Hägglund quote, which you loved, made clear.

Phil Sumpter said...

John,

you may want to look at the dialogue on Barth that has developed from my post here: http://narrativeandontology.blogspot.com/2008/06/question-concerning-threefold-word-of.html.

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

You seem to miss my point, so let me put it this way. Suppose that I published a programmatic article in which I suggest that the label "true interpretation" be used as a technical term for historical criticism. And just suppose that this (admittedly ridiculous) suggestion of mine caught on, and historical critics everywhere started referring to historical criticism as "true interpretation".

Would you have a problem with that?

I think you would, and that's *exactly* the problem I have with the way people are using the term "theological exegesis".

And as for my point regarding Hays: further suppose that I wrote another article promoting "true exegesis" in which I listed Benny Hinn, Reinhard Bonnke, and Oral Roberts as examples of those who don't practice this "true exegesis"--thereby implying that, if you don't practice "true exegesis", then you are keeping company with those guys. Would you object to that?

I think you would.

It's about the terminology, and about whether it's at all fair. The plain fact is that it isn't fair in the least.

Phil Sumpter said...

Your example from historical criticism is what indeed did happen. I don't like, but the solution is to provide counter arguments as to what constitutes "true interpretation," and not to call the whole thing a conspiracy. They are entitled to be so convinced of their position that there's is the "true interpretation." But they will have to reckon with disagreement. The same is the case with theological exegesis, except that no one has actually claimed that theological interpretation should by definition exclude historical criticism. This is something you claim. As I said, von Rad was also a theological exegete and is accepted as such.

In short, "theological exegesis," as Vanhoozer put it, means interpretation oriented towards God. That is the ony "technical meaning" there is at the moment. The rest is up for grabs. The fact that your position is a minority has to do with the fact that few people agree with you, not because of a prior decision to define you out of existence.

Perhaps Hays could have found other better examples to dialogue with. But that is a matter of shortsightedness by one scholar. It is hardly a conspiracy to coin a phrase in a particular way or define people out of existence, which he explicitly rejects in his article.

John C. Poirier said...

You write, "Your example from historical criticism is what indeed did happen." That's not at all true. If there were historical critics who believed that their method was the only "true" method, they stopped far short of suggesting that "true interpretation" be used as a technical term. No historical critic would ever dream of establishing a book series called "True Interpretation", or a journal called the "Journal of True Interpretation", or editing a "Dictionary of True Interpretation", and to use these strictly as organs of historical criticism.

The fact is that I *do* consider historical-critical interpretation to be the only "true" interpretation, but I would never dream of using the term "true interpretation" as a technical term for my preferred method. It wouldn't even occur to me to be that silly. Even if I thought my arguments for believing historical criticism to be the only "true" method were unassailable, that would not warrant the coining of such an unfair term. I say let the *arguments* do the talking, and keep the terminology fair.

But for some reason, those who fall under the umbrella of this "theological exegesis" term have no problem applying the term as a technical term, and using it as a term of contradistinction to what Dodd, Lindars, Brown, Fitzmyer, Barr, Barton, Davies, Meyer, Hurtado, Dunn, etc., etc., do, even when the aforementioned scholars deal with purely theological passages.

Can you think of a good reason why the aforementioned scholars should not be referred to as practitioners of "theological exegesis"? And if you are willing to admit them, then is there any reason at all for the term?

Phil Sumpter said...

I don't need to repeat this, John. No one is making "theological exegesis" into a technical term. The idea exists only in your head. Call all the others theological exegetes if you want. Maybe they are. Lets look at the arguments, as you, I and everyone else says.

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

I think the many examples of the use of "theological exegesis" show that it indeed *is* a technical term--as much of a technical term as "historical criticism" or "redaction criticism".

Phil Sumpter said...

We're going to have to agree to disagree here John. Regardless of our interpretations, I hope that diaologue between us will be done in terms of actual arguments rather than in terms of hidden conspiracies. I find it more productive and more objective.

John C. Poirier said...

I appreciate the need to move on, but your last comment indicates that you misunderstand me, as I'm not really talking about a "conspiracy". That term makes it sound like the unfortunate terminology was consciously chosen, but I think that these sorts of things happen more or less semi-consciously. Groups privilege their own positions all the time through their terminology.

When I responded to Childs's unfortunate use of the term "Scripture" in the pages of Expository Times a few years ago, I said the same thing. I don't think Childs meant to be unfair in his terminology, but it was the natural fruit of his point of view.

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