How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

A “manifesto for theological interpretation” and the problem of history

Generative AI summary:

In their manifesto, Bartholomew and Thomas argue for the priority of theological interpretation over historical-critical interpretation. They emphasize that history must be understood theologically as the arena in which the redemptive narrative of the Bible unfolds, and that theological interpretation should utilize historical inquiry methods that are alert to the action of God in history. They also highlight the importance of the resurrection in shaping a new historiography that reveals the end towards which all history is moving. However, the author of the critique disagrees, suggesting that this theological approach discounts the properly historical dimension of the biblical narrative and overlooks the significance of the historical experience of the chosen people of God.

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In their “manifesto for theological interpretation,” Craig Bartholomew and Heath Thomas assert the priority of theological interpretation over historical-critical interpretation.1 History must be understood theologically as the arena in which the painful and hopeful redemptive narrative of the Bible is fought out. Because history is a web of particularities and contingencies, because it’s messy, historical-criticism is an unavoidable part of the process of interpretation, but it cannot be allowed to exclude divine agency.

So they ask the question: “How are we in history to apprehend the God who is at work in history?” (8). Historical criticism cannot help us here because, more often than not, it contradicts “the plain intent of Scripture’s authors to testify to God’s involvement in the world.”

Theological interpretation, by contrast, “seeks to develop and work within an account of history that is itself determined by the reality of God’s involvement in history, and seeks to utilize methods of historical inquiry that are alert to the action of God in history.”

Then, since the central action of God in history is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, “both the account of history under which theological interpretation operates and the methods utilized in its investigation of history will be christocentric” (9).

The resurrection, they argue, is especially important in this regard because it reveals the end to which all history is moving; it is “the place where God’s new creation is breaking in.” This must fundamentally change the terms of historical enquiry. It “gives rise to a new historiography, a new means of discerning what is actually going on in history.”

Now I don’t think that this is a good way of engaging with biblical history because history in any useful sense is effectively discounted by reaching immediately for the overarching “creation to new creation” narrative.

First, Bartholomew and Thomas preclude the properly historical dimension of the biblical “metanarrative” from the outset. Their “account of history” is, in fact, a-historical. We begin with creation, we end with the renewal of all things. Along the way, the Bible “tells the story of God’s saving and judging acts, which finds its all-dominating center and concentrated focus in the coming and work of Christ” (4). This all-dominating centre obliterates everything that happens between creation and new creation. So the narrative model really has no use for history.

Secondly, while there is some point to saying that the resurrection of Jesus is God’s new creation breaking in, I don’t see how that requires a new historiography. The “breaking in” of something that transcends history is meaningful only insofar as it challenges, essentially in a prophetic fashion, the prevailing old historiography, the normal way of constructing the past, describing the present, or imagining the future. This obviously needs further thought, but I’m inclined to think that theological interpretation here is self-defeating.

Thirdly, I would argue that this sort of theological “super history” has kept us from understanding what’s really going on scripture. The meaning that the New Testament attaches to Jesus draws not on a universal metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. It is determined by the thoroughly historical experience of a people chosen to serve the living God throughout the ages.

The life, death, and even the resurrection of Jesus get their meaning primarily —almost exclusively—from the story of Israel. He is sent at a critical moment in the nation’s history to redeem a people that has lost its way; his death is understood to be an atonement for the sins of his people; and his resurrection embodies a new future for his people.

It then becomes clear that the salvation of the Abrahamic agenda will rather quickly have implications for the nations which have for so long oppressed the priestly-prophetic people of the living God, but this is all a matter of new kingdom, not in any final sense of new creation. The expectation is that the risen Jesus will reign at the right hand of God both over his people and over the nations throughout the coming ages—that is, throughout history. Then, when the last enemy has been destroyed, the end will come and the Christ will give the kingdom back to the Father so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

We can call this theological history, if we like, but only insofar as a people continues to bear witness under tumultuous historical conditions to the reality of the God who made the heavens and the earth.

We need some manner of historical criticism to elucidate this perspective—I call it a “narrative-historical” perspective. But it is reductivist only in that it scales the metanarrative of scripture down to properly historical—in effect, political—proportions. That’s the level at which all the action is and has meaning, including the “supernatural” action, but theological interpretation—“interpretation of the Bible for the church,” as Bartholomew and Thomas put it—seems largely blind to it.

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    C. G. Bartholomew and H. A. Thomas (eds.), A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation (2016).