Putting the theological cart before the biblical horse

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Stephen Fowl has written a very enjoyable, lively, lucid, little book about hermeneutics called Theological Interpretation of Scripture (2009). But I’m having a hard time accepting some of the implications of his central argument, which is that priority should be given to theology (specifically the premise of the self-revelation of the triune God) over historical-criticism in the interpretation of scripture.

Fowl maintains that although biblical scholarship for the most part should be understood as an attempt to ‘display the communicative intentions of biblical writers’, this should not be the primary consideration for theological interpretation of scripture. The significance of this prioritization is brought out in what strikes me as a particularly troublesome paragraph (49).

Making the communicative intention of Scripture’s human authors the primary goal of theological interpretation will unnecessarily and unfortunately truncate Christians’ abilities to read Scripture in several important respects.

For example, Christians will want to interpret passages such as Isaiah 7:14 and 11:1-5 as referring to Christ. They will want to read John 1:1 and Phil. 2:6-11 in the light of Nicene dogma.

It seems extremely unlikely that our best approximations of the communicative intentions of Isaiah, John, or Paul will address these matters.

Or to take a different type of example… Christian theology, Fowl argues, cannot possibly accept the ‘authorial intention’ of the beatitudes of Psalm 137:8-9: ‘O daughter of Babylon, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!’

This seems a blatant admission that Christian theology and biblical interpretation are never going to get along with each other. To say that Christians will ‘want to interpret’ passages in the light of Christ or Nicene christology sounds like exegesis by wishful thinking. What Christians ‘want’ a passage to refer to should have nothing to do with it. Isaiah 7:14 refers to a child who will be born (perhaps to Isaiah himself) in the reign of king Ahaz as a prophetic sign that God is present to judge and deliver. Isaiah 11 refers somewhat less precisely to a Davidic king who will gather the Jews scattered among the neighbouring countries and establish a righteous rule over the restored nation. If later authors found some point in interpreting Jesus in the light of these texts (rather than the texts in the light of Jesus), that is their insight, not Isaiah’s.

A theologian seeking to account for a ‘Nicene notion of the relationships between the divine persons’ may reasonably conclude that John 1:1 was a ‘crucial catalyst’ for later theological developments, but that is a historical rather than an interpretive judgment. It can hardly be given priority over the interpreter who ‘through a historically plausible reconstruction of the text’s conceptual and verbal antecedents’ presents what an informed first or second century reader might have taken the statement ‘In the beginning was the word’ to mean.

It seems to me much better to develop a hermeneutic that can make sense of the narrative development of theological perspectives than to force scripture into the procrustean bed of later dogmatic formulations. We do not have to live under the assumption that theology must be amenable to a rational, consolidating, homogenizing synthesis – or even, I would dare to suggest, that everything must be decided according to the classical formulations of Christendom.

I find this to be the besetting weakness of the Theological Interpretation movement. I think the way forward is to work toward theological engagements of historical critical scholarship. That's what N. T. Wright does, what Richard Hays does, how Mike Gorman usually works, etc.

@JR Daniel Kirk:

Have you read Gorman? Inhabiting the Cruciform God is decidedly a theological reading of scripture. NT Wright operates much the same way. He writes historical scholarship guided by a theological approach. Some theological approaches (e.g. Wright) are actually informed by the critical method - it is still a theological approach. Much of Wright's work also cuts directly against many operating principles of the critical method. I've not read Hays (yet, its on the shelf) so I cannot comment there.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 05/26/2010 - 09:49 | Permalink

Wasn't it Matthew who started it? Matthew 1:22-23 interprets Isaiah 7:14 as referring to Christ, even though the passage in Isaiah is blatantly nothing to do with him.

@peter wilkinson:

To be sure, this is an intra- as well as an extra-biblical practice. But my point is that we should still be able to make a clear and theologically relevant distinction between what Isaiah meant and what Matthew meant. We do not have to treat Matthew’s interpretation as having priority in our reading of Isaiah, which appears to be Stephen Fowl’s argument.

In any case, what is it exactly that Matthew finds ‘fulfilled’ in the story of Mary and Joseph and the supernatural naming of the baby? Why does it not bother Matthew that Mary’s son was to be given a very different name to the child mentioned by Isaiah – particularly since he so carefully highlights the meaning of both names?

Does he really think that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah was to be directly and specifically fulfilled in the birth of Jesus? Or does he mean something more like: the circumstances of Jesus’ birth point to the fact that it has a similar prophetic significance to the birth of the boy Immanuel, inasmuch as it presages a dramatic transformation of the fortunes of Israel?

@Andrew Perriman:

That's interesting, because while the word 'Immanuel' may have had historical and immediate significance for Isaiah (7:14; 8:8; 8:10), it has even greater significance for Jesus in a sense that Isaiah might not have been able to devise. Jesus was not simply Immanuel in relation to pagan enemies, but Immanuel in the sense of God in person, and in the ultimate provision of the Spirit, of which the gospels, not simply Matthew alone, are heralds and precursors. The theology here is that of Matthew, the synoptics, and reflects John and the NT as a whole. Everyone interprets the biblical story one way or another. The biblical story is itself an interpretation of underlying history and material. It's all a question of comparing one theological interpretation with another.

@peter wilkinson:

Jesus was not simply Immanuel in relation to pagan enemies, but Immanuel in the sense of God in person, and in the ultimate provision of the Spirit, of which the gospels, not simply Matthew alone, are heralds and precursors.

But this, it seems to me, is how the serpent of later theology begins to insinuate its way back into the garden of biblical interpretation. I don’t think anything in Matthew compels us to think that he was thinking of Jesus as ‘God in person’ in the sense that later formulations would give to that phrase. The manner of Jesus’ birth is a sign that God is present in Israel both to judge and to preserve from destruction, just as the birth of the boy Immanuel was. Where Matthew takes things further is in making Jesus not merely a sign but the agent through whom Israel will be saved from their sins (Matt. 1:21).

I agree that we have to deal with layers of interpretation and re-interpretation. What I have a problem with is the habit of allowing subsequent formulations to obscure or flatten or distort the narrative dynamic of the text to the extent that most Christians find it very difficult not to hear in Matthew 1:21 an affirmation of the doctrine of the incarnation.

@Andrew Perriman:

Immanuel means 'God with us'. In Isaiah 7:14, this appears to be simply a name given to the human son of the young woman, associated in an apparently  disconnected way with judgement on Judah's enemies at the time. In Isaiah 8:8, 10, the name is applied more explicitly as a sign of the protection given by God himself over Judah - even though the 'river' of Assyria was to overflow the entire land (but not Jerusalem). Assyria was later repelled, according to Isaiah 37, through judgement on the besieging army, and then on Sennacherib himself.

How is Matthew using the name in the birth account of Matthew 1:21? It wasn't a sign of protection of Israel and judgement on her enemies, since the opposite was historically the case. Jesus did bring protection for his followers from judgement which was to come on Israel through Rome. But the story goes far beyond this simple narrative. The evidence of the gospels is that the term described Jesus as the divine one in person, and the significance of his coming for his followers as fulfilled through the gift of the Holy Spirit - for which his earthly ministry was a precursor, and his ascension the faciltator.

The heart of the question is how Matthew was using the term Immanuel in relation to Jesus. For that, we have to look at the rest of the Matthew narrative, and the narrative in the context of the New Testament as a whole. It wasn't simply a recapitulation of events similar to those in the 8th century BC. Matthew associates Isaiah 7 and 8 with Jesus through the name 'Immanuel'. He then, in Matthew 4:15-16, associates Isaiah 9 with Jesus as well. In Isaiah as in Matthew, the prophecy goes infinitely beyond 8th century BC or similar events. In the light of the NT, we have to ask: how was Jesus the fulfilment, and what was the connection of 7 & 8 with 9?

Jesus was Immanuel as God with us, 'the Word became flesh and lived among us' - John 1:14 (and as God living in the temple, not temporarily, but permanently). How did that come about? Through Jesus himself, but also through his presence imparted in the gift of the Holy Spirit, as a permanent endowment. The protection this afforded to his followers was certainly protection from judgement on Israel, by means of Rome. It was not protection from subsequent persecution by Rome. Much more than this, it was the abiding presence of God within those who believed in Jesus, from Pentecost onwards.

We could try to isolate the word 'Immanuel' from these layers of significance, but the name itself is part of the supporting evidence, with much else, that Jesus was God, had come as God, and was to be the mediator of God to those who believed in him, as a permanent indwelling presence. The 'temple' evidence runs throughout Matthew, along with much else that points to Jesus's divine identity. The mediation of God, as God, to those who believed in him was the supreme achievement of Jesus's ministry.

So is this 'flattening' the narrative? I think 'enriching' might be a better description. Certainly, the narrative should not be allowed to flatten the theological significance. Either way, you can't have the narrative without the theology.