I have had quite a lengthy conversation here with Bobby Grow following on from my random review posts about Samuel V. Adams’ book The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N. T. Wright. The conversation was basically a dispute, a little testy in places, about whether the interpretation of scripture needs to be predetermined by theological ideas about the epistemologically prior revelation of God in Christ developed by the later church.
Grow has reached the conclusion—rightly I think—that we are “on totally different wave lengths” and appears to have withdrawn from the conversation; and who can blame him? I express my thanks for his substantial contribution. But I thought it might be worth reviewing and summarising briefly what appear to me to have been the main areas of disagreement.
By what authority?
The theological approach holds to a doctrine of sola scriptura, which states that while scripture is the sole source of revelation, the interpretation of scripture is subject to the “magisterial” authority of the church.
This is often set in contrast to a “revisionist” doctrine of solo scriptura, a corruption of the Reformation principle, which rejects the authoritative interpretive tradition of the church and permits individuals to decide for themselves what a text means. Fr. Jonathan Mitchican discusses the grammatically irregular, pseudo-technical distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura.
The distinction between ecclesiastical and private interpretation, it seems to me, is largely illusory. On the one hand, there is no single magisterium even in the tradition to which modern Protestants are heirs; and on the other, individual readers always belong to a reading community of some sort, even if only implicitly and unwittingly.
The historical approach, in principle, makes appeal neither to church authority nor to personal whim but to a broad and rather loosely defined set of historical-critical standards. Historical Jesus research in particular has shown how these standards, while not merely subjective, are subject over time to the vagaries of cultural and ideological prejudice. Still, good historians will argue that they are always working towards a more or less “objective” understanding of what a text meant in its original author-reader setting. The historical reading of scripture is itself an authoritative tradition embedded in a reading community.
To the theologian it appears that the historical reconstruction is no less artificial than the theological reconstruction of biblical meaning. There is some truth in this. Two things may be said in response, however. First, it seems hard to deny that the immediate Jewish worldview should have priority for interpretation over Patristic or Reformation or post-Barthian worldview. Asking how the text was read in the first century and asking how it was read in the fifth century are two very different exercises, but they are both historical exercises. Secondly, historical reconstruction is, in principle, self-correcting; it engages critically with the data. Orthodox theologians, on the other hand, for better or for worse, can only offer different ways of saying the same thing.
The problem of historical reductionism
Theology, on the evidence of Grow’s comments, tends to characterise the historical method in reductionist terms. It puts itself forward as the defender of the theological-supernatural content of scripture against a materialist historical-critical methodology that is taken to be inherently hostile towards confessional readings of the texts.
History will say that this is no longer a fair analysis. The historical method does not need to settle the metaphysical questions. We only need to establish what the communities that originally produced and read the texts understood, believed, thought, etc. Whether the interpreter today understands, believes and thinks in the same way is another matter.
So it is a perfectly reasonable historical question to ask what Matthew meant when he attributed Jesus’ conception to the Holy Spirit. Did he mean that Jesus was God incarnate, which is the theological assumption? Or did he mean that Jesus’ birth—like the birth of the boy “Immanuel” in Isaiah 7—was a powerful sign that God was with his people at a time of eschatological crisis? Theologians more or less take it for granted that the text conforms to dogmatic expectations. Historians will set that traditional assumption on one side and will ask whether, when interpreted according to the appropriate literary contexts, which are first century Jewish rather than Patristic, the saying might carry a rather different idea.
The important point to note is that this literary-historical reading does not question the fact of the “virgin birth”—did it really happen? It questions its meaning. My argument, then, is that persuasive historical interpretations should not be suppressed simply because they diverge from theological expectations. We need to find a better way of resolving the tension.
The theological cart before the biblical horse
Theology claims to precede or condition the Jewish context of the biblical writings; it describes the “metaphysical heritage” of the Jewish worldview or thought-world of the New Testament. Theology has taken upon itself the task of writing the epistemological—for which read “metaphysical”—rulebook for the interpretation of scripture. This is the fundamental move that Adams makes: he adds an apocalyptic epistemology to N.T. Wright’s critical realism.
This prior “theologic” or “inner logic” or “metaphysical heritage” is taken to be christological. In Pauline language it may be construed, in Grow’s words, as the “primacy of Christ over and for creation” as stated in Colossians 1:15-20. It was given a definitive “grammar” by the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. The Barthian apocalyptic theology advocated by Adams is a philosophically updated version of this patristic grammar.
History will argue, however, that this is an unwarranted arrogation of interpretive authority, a hermeneutical power-play. Nothing in scripture itself points to the need for such a reframing of the text and pre-emption of meaning. Scripture sets its own rules for interpretation, and they are not incarnational-apocalyptic.
Christology is central to the New Testament for the obvious reason that it is about Jesus and the significance of his death and resurrection for the early church and the pagan world. It was written by a community for which the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and enthronement was of paramount importance.
Equally, there are good historical reasons for thinking that trajectories of thought established in the Old Testament land—albeit sometimes in a rather complicated fashion—in the New Testament’s presentation of the significance of Jesus. But forcibly to subsume the whole of the Old Testament under a christological premise is simply unnecessary and in practice often results in contrived exegesis.
A historical reading of the Bible will highlight themes much more closely related to the narrative shape of the material. At the most general level this will be understood in terms of the continuing historical existence of a witnessing community, but in my view it is the political-religious theme of the kingdom of God, vis-à-vis both Israel and empire, that constitutes the main hermeneutical key. Here again we see the contrast between a Jewish mode of apocalyptic as the story of the troubled existence of a people and a theological apocalyptic which makes the revelation of God in Christ the condition for interpreting the supra-historical Word of God.
In a nutshell, theology claims to precede, contain, underpin, interpret history, whereas history claims to precede, contain, underpin, interpret theology. The New Testament church operated with an apocalyptic-historical self-understanding; the church relocated into a Hellenistic setting developed the first paradigm; and I suggest that in the age to come we will be better served by the second paradigm.
Incidentally, in response to a rather vexed criticism made by Grow, the historical approach that I am advocating does not require us to think that “God’s presence had been absent until the ball got rolling to its current trajectory” in biblical studies. My view is that once the church began to feel at home in the Greek-Roman world, it lost interest in a Jewish-apocalyptic narrative that was designed to offer hope to an oppressed people, and set about the task of constructing a new hybrid worldview, largely on the basis of John’s logos theology, which was to last for 1500 years and more. But this hiatus in historical self-understanding does not mean that God was absent in the intervening period, merely that his relation to the world and to his people was differently construed.
The ontology of scripture
Theology assumes or argues that scripture has its own unique divine or sacred ontology as the Word of God. It is simply not like other historical texts and therefore cannot be read on the same terms. If we reduce it to a historical text, it can no longer exist or function as divine revelation that speaks to people at all times.
A historically oriented biblical hermeneutic will argue, to the contrary, that the only meaning that the texts have is their meaning in historical context. If the later church chooses to find in scripture a sensus plenior or submerged “theo-logic”—in other words, a meaning that isn’t there—then that is to be evaluated as part of a reader-response hermeneutic. A historical hermeneutic in principle must relativise all traditional formulations as being no less culturally conditioned than the Jewish-apocalyptic worldview that appears to have been so influential in shaping New Testament thought. The authority of scripture for the community that owns its story is to be found within its historical character, not outside of it.
Goldilocks and the three narrative bears
Theology instinctively tells the biblical story in cosmic terms, highlighting the development from 1) creation and fall to 2) incarnation and redemption to 3) a final eschaton. It then develops the implications of this universal meta-narrative for any and every individual. The story of Israel is merely an aspect of the inescapable particularity of the irruption of God into history—an aspect of the “Triune story”, as Bobby Grow puts it.
Grow argues that there is no abstraction here, but I disagree. There is a great difference between saying that participation in the life of God is grounded in the vertical reality of “God’s own participatory life for us in Christ” and saying that participation in the life of God—even allowing that this is a good starting point—is grounded in the continuing historical experience of a people chosen to bear witness to the creator God.
History prefers to tell the biblical story in down-to-earth political terms, relegating the cosmic aspect to a background supporting role. In this Goldilocks hermeneutical model, the neglected mother-bear-sized political narrative about the people of God and its relation to the nations of the ancient world is precisely what scripture is all about and what determines meaning. The cosmic narrative is much too big, and the personal salvation narrative is much too small.