Why we do not need theology

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Is the Bible a collection of historical texts stuck in the past? Is it a sacred text that transcends and overrules its historical origins? Or do we somehow have to hold these two perspectives in tension?

By and large, historical-critical approaches to biblical interpretation assume the first perspective; popular faith-motivated approaches assume the second. Modern evangelical scholarship, meanwhile, generally wants to have its cake and eat it, holding out for some version of the third position: first, we establish what the text once meant; then we consider what it now means. But this is a rather unstable and perhaps even spurious compromise, and the Bible remains at the centre of a strenuous tug-of-war between the historians and the theologians.

One of those pulling hard for the theologians is Joel Green. In Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture he observes that, following the postmodern shift, we have come to regard all knowledge as “historically grounded”, and he asks how this recognition impinges upon biblical studies.

It has led to the assumption that the only viable history within which to construe the meaning of biblical texts is the history within which those texts were generated—or the history to which those texts give witness. The results for Christian theology and preaching have often been disastrous, since it is difficult to construe the meaning for contemporary times of a biblical text whose meaning properly belongs to an ancient time. [fn]Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture, Abingdon Press, 2007, 14-15.[/fn]

This is the central problem posed by a historical hermeneutic: if biblical meaning properly belongs to an ancient past, of what use is it for us today? Biblical truth becomes nothing more than an assortment of corroded artefacts—primitive tools, crude items of jewellery, roughly shaped dishes—dug from an ancient site. We might display them in a museum, with explanatory notices for the benefit of visitors. They are remarkable items. But we would not dream of making everyday use of them.

This is rightly intolerable to evangelicals—indeed, to anyone who wants to believe that the Bible is formative for the people of God today.

Green’s solution will be to prioritize theology over history, to construe the historical texts theologically as transcendent scripture—that much can be inferred from the title of the book. The problem with this approach is that inevitably the historical voice will be distorted or suppressed, and the Bible will be made to say things that it does not want to say. The ancient artefacts will be discreetly replaced with cheap shiny replicas which won’t look out of place in the modern household—the sort of stuff that you buy in the gift shop on the way out of the museum.

I think this is a mistake and ultimately a betrayal of the Bible as scripture. My view is that we do not need to wrap the Bible in a modern user-friendly “theology” in order for it to have practical value for the church. What makes the Bible meaningful for us, what makes it scripture, is not that universally applicable moral and religious truths can be extracted from it—though undoubtedly some can—but that it establishes a narrative trajectory. It points in a certain direction.

The New Testament points the early redeemed church in the direction of vindication—first with respect to apostate Judaism, secondly with respect to European paganism. If we step back a bit, I think we then see how the Bible as a whole points the people of God always towards the prospect of new creation, of which it is both a concrete embodiment and a prophetic sign.

But this narrative trajectory—this pointing—can be thoroughly described without introducing a ‘disastrous’ schism between theology and history. In scripture theology is grounded historically; history is interpreted theologically. This is why prophecy is such a critical component in biblical discourse—it is the realistic theological interpretation of historical events, past, present, and future.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 07/26/2011 - 10:23 | Permalink

Leaving aside what you have to say about 'modern evanglicalism' Andrew, it's interesting that you suggest the idea of a 'narrative trajectory' as a way of maintaining the relevance of the bible for today. I'd want to ask two questions of this: which narrative sets the trajectory, and in what ways does the ultimate aim of the trajectory find expression in history?

There can be very different answers to these questions. If the narrative trajectory is the triumph of God and God's people over paganism, with expressions of that being in the concrete political sphere, that will provide one answer. If the narrative trajectory is broader in scope, and includes the reversal of the effects of the fall in all aspects of the social, spiritual, and psychological life of humanity, in all its ontological and creational functions, that will provide another answer.

If the second is a valid way of interpreting the narrative and its trajectory, why should it not also validate an accompanying theological trajectory (or trajectories), as ways in which interpretations of the narrative have been made and applied in history?

Doesn't the historical critical approach to biblical interpretation inevitably lead to theological underpinning of one kind or another, if the texts are to have relevance to times and contexts beyond themselves? Provided theological interpretations are consistent with the firm indications of the original narrative and the reflections of the original writers and their texts, isn't this a valid and inevitable process?

(If you are in or around Guildford at the moment, why not get in touch?)

Peter, I would argue that scripture has both trajectories in view: the impending triumph over paganism and the more far-reaching renewal of creation. That was my point about stepping back and taking in the broader perspective. The victory over paganism, I think, is the dominant narrative in the Bible, but it is still framed by the calling of a people to experience the fullness of creational blessing. It was, in effect, by becoming a new humanity, subject to Christ as Lord, that the church overcame the powers of pagan empire.

If the second is a valid way of interpreting the narrative and its trajectory, why should it not also validate an accompanying theological trajectory (or trajectories), as ways in which interpretations of the narrative have been made and applied in history?

I’m not sure what you’re saying here, but I think my response would be to question the extent to which your very good formulation of the second narrative trajectory is reflected in theological traditions.

For a long time I've considered the narrative trajectory of Scripture as my primary interpretive frame, so I'm excited to discover it here, though the question as to what that trajectory is valid. Which is why your point of prophecy being the realistic interpretation of events struck close to home.  My particular developing interest is in bringing a prophetic imagination (borrowing from Walter Brueggemann) to literature; of using the prophetic discourse within the "genre" of western literature such that the literature itself regains a traction lost with Scripture's narrative trajectory.  On that point, I've recently come across and started reading Thomas J. J. Altizer's Godhead and the Nothing.  

This was a helpful post. My perspective is that the direction needs to be a both/and, in that the historical trajectory will always need to arm wrestle with the historical, and theological, to determine whose version of the story is correct. I would also add the obvious that we are dependent on the Spirit to hold these things meaningfully in tension.

Barney | Tue, 07/26/2011 - 17:50 | Permalink

I agree that theology should not be prioritised over history - and therefore that the bible should be seen first and foremost as a historical document which starts a narrative trajectory.

However, I think this creates more problems than it solves for the practical purpose of training and instructing the church. I would suggest that theology has been so popular because it claims to translate biblical truths into contemporary thought categories. If you take these categories away from people, they will demand other categories that make sense for them in their own context. Otherwise the bible will become more and more alien to people, less relevant, and correspondingly less important to engage with.

You could argue that this shouldn't be the case, and people should see the importance of the bible despite its historical rootedness. But my point is that it probably will be the case whether it should or not. It could be argued that refusing to do theology will be seen as laziness, forcing people to do for themselves the hard work of constructing a synthetic worldview where previously that was the job of the theologian.

How do we keep the bible relevant and important for the average churchgoer who hasn't the time/money/inclination to study these things at degree level?

On second thoughts I may be asking the very question that your post is there to answer, so you may end up having nothing more to say than you've already said. But I still think it's a valid concern: people will ask for systematic ways of thinking with answers to their own questions, and if all you give them is narrative trajectories and answers to questions they never dreamt of, they will feel unsure of what they believe or of why it matters. How do we translate concepts like "narrative trajectory" into language that makes sense to people familiar with classical theology?

The questions are absolutely valid, Barney, and I don’t pretend to have much in the way of answers to them. But a few quick thoughts…

1. I think we are under some sort of “intellectual” obligation to read the Bible for what it is. I think that is simply the right thing to do. Then perhaps we have to trust that over time we will find ways to work with the results of the historical methodology.

2. I don’t object to the practice of systematic or dogmatic theology altogether. I just think that the theology we are currently working with has its origins in a misreading of the Bible and is therefore flawed. Once we have learnt to re-read the Bible “for what it is”, we will be in a position to construct a new set of theological responses to the text.

3. The church as we know it may have trouble coming to terms with a narrative-historical reading of the Bible, but it may well be that in ten or twenty years the basic intellectual culture of the church will have changed to the point where the new readings make a lot more sense, are much more accessible. As it is, I find that a remarkable number of people “get” the new reading once you take the trouble to explain it to them.

4. A lot of people have already stepped outside the box in a multitude of practical ways with regard to church and mission. They may well respond positively to the prospect of pouring new wine into their new wineskins.

5. Paradigm shifts take time.

6. I need to write a book addressing the questions that you raise.

hilary | Wed, 07/27/2011 - 08:38 | Permalink

Thank-you for these thoughts Andrew- I've just started re-reading Isaiah and come straight up against precisely the problem you describe

"the Bible remains at the centre of a strenuous tug-of-war between the historians and the theologians."

This tug of war is going on inside my head, and I'm interested in your proposal that seeking the "narrative trajectory" could be a solution. I've referred to your post on my blog for today.



I'm not sure if I follow your entire line. Using my own words...Theology on its own can lead to abstraction. Biblical study on its own can lead to abstraction. If the goal (in both) is to know God concretely in real life, then this is where you insert discussion about the narrative trajectory. The only element I would add is the importance of the Holy Spirit (which you allude to by discussing prophecy). Most who are savvy in this area acknowledge in some way that Word and Spirit meet to reveal God.