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.