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Words from GOD – Words to GOD

Journal of Theological Interpretation, vol. 1.5 – Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz

part 5Herod´s Temple on the TempleMount
The Hermeneutical Circle of Christian Community: Biblical, Theological, and Practical Dimensions of the Unity of Scripture

Abstract—Within Christian communities, the problem of the unity of Scripture involves biblical, theological, and practical dimensions. This interdisciplinary study surveys some of the major questions that emerge for theological interpretation of Scripture that follows the hermeneutical circle of Scripture, theology, and practice. The article also briefly explores a possible model of community response. The investigation first examines questions concerning the unity of Scripture at each of the three interfaces of the hermeneutical circle: (1) Scripture and theology, (2) theology and practice, and (3) praxis and Scripture. Historical examples from various periods in the history of Christianity are employed to describe issues of continuing significance. Particular attention is given to a dialectic in the history of biblical interpretation between “one right meaning” (Irenaeus) and “one right method” (Origen). Each interface offers a differing but potentially complementary perspective on this challenging and perennial problem. Then the article explores responses to the questions for the Christian communities that view Scripture as the primary source of religious authority. The responses use a modified version of canonical hermeneutics and a blended diversity of theological models. The study seeks to show that the development of a hermeneutical circle of community, moving through these three dynamic interfaces, offers an approach that holds the unity of Scripture together with theology and practice.

Key Words—Hermeneutical Circle, Canon, Interpretation, Unity of Scripture, Irenaeus, Origen, Pastoral Theology, Proof-Texting

When Christian communities seek to read and interpret Scripture theologically, they can easily find themselves confused by many voices offering conflicting interpretations. This conflict often becomes particularly intense for Christian communities that view Scripture as the primary source of religious authority, rather than relying on official institutional interpretations such as the interpretations of the Catholic magisterium or the Orthodox “living tradition.” Compounding the conflict are the ways in which the lenses of culture, through which communities read the texts, often blind them to the challenges that Scripture offers to their situation.
What wisdom can biblical, historical, and theological scholarship offer to Christian communities caught in this confusing conflict? Rather than merely adding further options to an already bewildering array of interpretive possibilities, interdisciplinary scholarship perhaps can offer some helpful perspective on the process of interpreting and acting on Scripture.
One fruitful approach to thinking about the process of theological interpretation and performance of Scripture identifies three dynamic interfaces. As Christian communities traverse the hermeneutical circle of Scripture, theology, and practice, they encounter the interfaces of (1) Scripture and theology, (2) theology and practice (or praxis), and (3) praxis and Scripture.
This study employs these three dynamic interfaces to illumine the problem of the unity of Scripture. Our exploratory investigation will proceed in the following manner. First, we will survey some of the major questions that emerge at each interface when the problem of the unity of Scripture is considered. Historical examples from various periods in the history of Christianity will be employed to describe issues of continuing significance. Each interface offers a differing but potentially complementary perspective on this challenging and perennial problem. Then we will briefly explore some responses for the Christian communities that view Scripture as the primary source of religious authority. The article seeks to show that the development of a hermeneutical circle of community, moving through the three dynamic interfaces, offers an approach that holds the unity of Scripture together with theology and practice.

The obvious diversity of the books that the Christian Scriptures comprise offers a starting point for reflection upon the problem of their unity. Even the Greek plural of biblion from which we derive our English word “bible,” through the medieval Latin transliteration biblia, shows the difficulty. The Scriptures are many books that are to be read together in one canon. The situation is further complicated, of course, by the division of the Christian Scriptures into two testaments, although the unity of the testaments is not the specific focus of this study.
The long-standing and continuing disputes among Christian communities as to the boundaries of the canon offer historians windows into the development of the identity and institutions of major Christian traditions. To take one example, the development of the fourfold Gospel tradition reveals a debate over which documents correctly portray the identity of Jesus which continues unabated today—not only in scholarly debates over the historical Jesus but also in popular media myths such as the Da Vinci Code. Beginning with Justin Martyr’s reference to the Gospels as the “reminiscences” or “memoirs of the apostles,” Christians contended over which portraits of Jesus were to be read as authoritative Scripture in their worship.
As Irenaeus (ca. 130–ca. 200) repeatedly demonstrates in his lengthy Against Heresies, this theological struggle was particularly intense in opposition to Gnostic views of the Gospel traditions. Attacking the Christological interpretation of the Valentinian Gnostics in Book 1, he offers the vivid analogy of a mosaic:

By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they [the Valentinian Gnostics] succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should re-arrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.

Irenaeus employs the process of the creating and remaking of a jeweled mosaic to capture the hermeneutical process of moving from the Scriptures to the doctrine of Christ. Both the catholic Christians and the Gnostics created images of Christ from the individual passages—the “precious jewels”—of the Gospels. Yet quite dramatically different pictures emerge: the king versus a dog or a fox. The many diverse “jewels” can be arrayed to create true or false pictures of the Lord.
Irenaeus claims that Gnostic interpretation cleverly distorts and destroys the “skilful artist’s” overall pattern. The Gnostics’ art of interpretation deceives ignorant Christians—like many of the Christians in Irenaeus’s church in Lyons—by rearranging the mosaic to present false images of Christ. Irenaeus asserts that the Valentinians are “adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.” In the language of interpretation theory, we might say that the hermeneutical presuppositions of the Gnostics control the outcome of their exegesis. The Gnostics “deconstruct” the pattern of interpretation and reconstruct the pieces into a mosaic that reflects their view of who Christ is.
Irenaeus’s response maintains that there is “one right reading” of the mosaic of the Gospels. The beautiful image of Christ as king is the pattern the “oracles of the Lord” are meant to portray. Irenaeus believes that this right reading is warranted by the rule of faith and by the authority of apostolic succession.
Of course, in the 21st century many interpreters would be quick to see the limitations of Irenaeus’s androcentric and hierarchical image of Christ. The critiques of feminist and contextual theologies have pointed to the cultural limitations of the early church interpreters of Scripture. Yet what is most significant for our study is not debate over the content of Irenaeus’s view but his claim that there is indeed one right reading of Scripture. Irenaeus’s view of Scripture leads to the image of Christian doctrine as a deposit of faith based upon the church’s one right reading of the Bible.
In the history of Christian thought, this image of doctrine as the deposit of faith led to a static understanding that Christian theology consisted of fixed propositions based on patristic consensus. In other words, the teachings of the “orthodox fathers of the church” purportedly agreed—or at least did not disagree—on all the fundamental doctrines of the church. As the canon of Vincent of Lérins (d. before 450) proclaims, “Now in the Catholic Church we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” Vincent interpreted this statement to mean that the Catholic Church used three tests to distinguish true teaching from false: ecumenicity (“everywhere”), antiquity (“always”), and consent (“by all” the orthodox church fathers).
In this view, the unity of Scripture is guaranteed by the uniformity of the church’s teaching of unchanging, sacred doctrine. Vincent’s understanding of the relationship between Bible and theology, like the understanding of many proponents of the unity of Scripture, assumes that “the Bible is the church’s book.” So, the church’s authoritative reading of Scripture is the right reading.
Vincent’s assumption of the doctrinally shaped unity of Scripture—a perspective that bears striking similarities to contemporary conservative Protestant propositionalists—raises three important questions for negotiating the Bible-theology interface. First, how does a doctrinally shaped unity of Scripture deal with the many disagreements on any presumed patristic consensus among the orthodox church fathers? This question was dramatically raised by the Sic et non of Peter Abelard (1079–1142/3), which documented over 150 examples of apparently contradictory teachings in the Bible and the fathers. (Of course, the debate itself ignored the legion of early church writers who were not included among the orthodox Fathers.)
Second, are there ways in which the Bible speaks against the traditions of the church, rather than merely being “the church’s book”? This question has been raised by the people who sought to reform the church according to Scripture throughout the church’s history. Perhaps the most dramatic embodiments of this protest in Western Christianity were the Protestant Reformations of the 16th century.
Third, does the church’s interpretation of Scripture need to assume, following Irenaeus, that there is only “one right reading”? If not, then how could theology still remain orthodox and admit a multiplicity of interpretations of Scripture? This question raises the possibility that the unity of Scripture may be compatible with a diverse range of interpretations. When one considers the doctrinal development that characterizes the early history of Christian thought, it is not surprising to discover a lively alternative to Irenaeus’s “one right reading” in the biblical interpretation of the early church.
Origen of Alexandria and Caesarea (ca. 185–ca. 254), the “master of allegory” among the biblical interpreters of the early church, offers an alternative to Irenaeus. Origen famously distinguishes three senses of Scripture—the literal (or somatic), the moral (or psychic), and the spiritual (or pneumatic). His exegetical practice often intermingles the psychic and pneumatic senses.10 The quest for spiritual understanding is what really matters for Origen. He believes that God has given Scripture so that people may discern its spiritual meanings. The method of allegorical interpretation provides the key to unlocking the spiritual meanings of Scripture.
Therefore, Origen approaches the problem of the unity of Scripture, not by arguing for one right doctrinal reading, but by advocating one right method. The diversity of Scripture may yield many spiritual meanings, some plainly speculative. God has arranged for spiritual understanding of Scripture at various levels, even to the point of placing “stumbling blocks” in the literal sense to lead readers to seek higher spiritual meanings.
Although Origen’s method of allegorical exegesis with its levels of meaning offers flexibility to accommodate the diversity of Scripture, it leads to a major difficulty for the early church. A reader of Origen’s exegesis soon encounters the problem of uncontrolled allegory. Side by side with Origen’s biblically grounded, textually sensitive exegesis, one finds examples of fantastic allegory. For example, in interpreting the sacrifices of Leviticus Origen identifies the four “horns” of the altar with the four Gospels and the “fatty parts” of the sacrificial calf with the soul of Christ.
The method of allegory can lead to a loss of hermeneutical control, especially when interpreting passages of Scripture that seem remote from the major themes of Christian belief and practice. Although the forced allegorism of Origen’s “spiritual exegesis” claims to be based upon the verbal inspiration of Scripture, its exegetical results undermine the credibility of theological unity of Scripture.
While disavowing Origen’s theological speculation, Christianity in late antiquity sought to domesticate his allegorical method of biblical interpretation. As Manlio Simonetti has shown, the fourfold sense of Scripture that dominated medieval biblical interpretation in the West is dependent on Origen’s method. John Cassian’s (ca. 360–after 430) four senses of Scripture—historical, allegorical (typological), tropological (moral), and anagogical—were “derived from Origen’s threefold division by splitting Origen’s spiritual interpretation into two distinct forms, typological and anagogical.”16
Our brief exploration of some aspects of the interface between Bible and doctrine in the early church that impact the problem of the unity of Scripture has uncovered two perspectives: Irenaeus’s one right reading leading to a Vincentian deposit view of Christian doctrine and Origen’s one right allegorical method leading to Cassian’s fourfold sense of Scripture. The interrelationship between these two perspectives shaped the ways that Christians connected Scripture and doctrine for centuries.
Of course, 21st-century Christians cannot simply adopt or repristinate these perspectives. The dialectic between meaning and method that they represent, however, is essential for contemporary reflection on the problem of the unity of Scripture.

From the time of Augustine’s Confessions (ca. 398–400), the doctrines of sin and salvation came to play a central role in Western Christian understandings of the meaning and use of Scripture. The unity of Scripture was commonly viewed through the lenses of these doctrines. The quest for salvation reflected in narratives of an individual’s religious journey then provided an integrating framework for a wide range of religious practices.
To take one prominent medieval example, the satisfaction view of atonement expounded in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (1098) cannot be properly understood apart from his monastic quest for salvation as revealed in his prayers and meditations. The Augustinian “unquiet heart” that seeks to find its rest in God is a common theme in Western monastic piety.
Martin Luther’s quest for a gracious God perhaps epitomizes the emphasis of the reformations of the 16th century on the centrality of the doctrine of salvation for both the interpretation of Scripture and the practices of Christian living. Luther’s development of the doctrine of justification by faith from Paul’s epistles, accompanied by his interpretation of Law and Gospel, provides “a canon within the canon” that theologically evaluates and Christocentrically unifies Scripture. Books like the Epistle of James that do not fit the Pauline pattern Luther relegated to an appendix in his German Bible.
Martin Bucer (1491–1551), who significantly influenced both Lutheran and Reformed traditions, reflects and extends Luther’s focus of salvation in the Reformation’s first major work of pastoral theology. Lifting up the theme of the Lordship of Christ, Bucer’s Von den waren Seelsorge (On the True Pastoral Care), first published in 1538, interprets Scripture in support of the roles of evangelism and church discipline in pastoral care.
As the various Protestant traditions developed in the modern period, movements such as continental Pietism and Anglo-American revivalism intensified a doctrinal focus upon individual salvation. The field of pastoral and practical theology offered works such as the Puritan Richard Baxter’s Reformed Pastor (1656) that were permeated by concern for the conversion of the lost and careful attention to the everyday moral lives of parish families.
Seward Hiltner’s classic study of the descriptions of ministry of the 19th-century Presbyterian pastor Ichabod S. Spencer provides an American example of the continuing dominance of the sin and salvation paradigm in mainline Protestant pastoral work. In 1851 and 1853, Spencer published two different books of “case studies” of his ministry in Brooklyn under the following title: A Pastor’s Sketches: or, Conversations with Anxious Inquirers, Respecting the Way of Salvation. These sketches reveal a pastor seeking a balance between reason and compassion—speaking the truth without giving offense.22 The unity of Scripture was understood in large measure through its use as a manual of propositions for conversion and holy living.
Yet the 19th century also witnessed the rise of an alternative way of thinking about the language of Scripture and doctrine in relation to Christian practice. The Augustinian doctrines of sin and salvation that had been transmuted into the conversionist emphasis of Protestant evangelicalism were challenged by the emergence of liberal Protestantism. For example, Horace Bushnell (1802–1876), often identified as “the father of Protestant liberalism” in America, argued in Discourses on Christian Nurture (1847) that a technical experience of conversion was not needed for children who were raised to Christian maturity within the church. Bushnell drew especially upon the Romantic hermeneutics of Coleridge to advocate an esthetic and symbolic approach to the language of Scripture.24 Brooks Holifield offers the following description of Bushnell’s view of Scripture:

he no longer thought of the Bible as an infallible and verbally inspired repository of propositional truth. It was rather “the grand poem of salvation.” It was the prime vehicle for the revelation of divine truth, but the God who authored it was an artist and not a logician, addressing the reader through stories and symbols drawn from the history of Israel.

This esthetic view of theological language exerted major influence upon the development of specialized approaches to the arts of ministry in 20th-century North America. In A History of Pastoral Care in America, Holifield has chronicled in painstaking detail the changing conceptions of this area of ministry. The major shift that occurs during the 20th century is sharply delineated in the book’s subtitle: From Salvation to Self-Realization. The Augustinian doctrinal emphasis on sin and salvation was often replaced by a focus upon the psychology of religious experience.
One major consequence of this shift has been the emerging of competing understandings of the nature and purpose of the fields of pastoral and practical theology. Some see the emergence of a communal, contextual paradigm for these fields, while others contend that pastoral and practical theology need to recover their theological moorings.27 Should the social sciences—or recently, brain science—set the directions for these fields, or should the social and cognitive sciences be regarded as cognate disciplines to theological norms?
When one surveys the 20th-century dialogue between psychology and Christian theology, the confusion and attenuation of Christian theological identity gradually takes place in at least two major directions. First, psychology—later supplemented by other social-scientific disciplines—assumed predominance in the dialogue. The empirical study of religious experience and communities replaced the midcentury dialogue with various Protestant theologians, most notably Paul Tillich. Theological education increasingly relied upon “pastoral psychology”29 and the movement of clinical pastoral education for the training of Protestant ministers. Second, with the development of the field of religious studies in North American colleges and universities,31 the dialogue expanded to include an eclectic selection of world religions and “alternative spiritualities.”
The result of all of this ferment is the loss of clear boundaries for the disciplines that sought to bridge psychology and theology. Thus, in their introduction to Religion and Psychology—Mapping the Terrain, William B. Parsons and Diane Jonte-Pace tellingly observe:

Even a cursory historical overview reveals that the domain which is the subject of this volume has been circumscribed by various designations.… Indeed the perspectives have become so diverse that it is questionable whether the multiplicity of dialogues and approaches gathered here can be said to constitute a single “field.” … On the other hand, it is important to note that there have been numerous attempts to create cohesion (a singular “field”) out of the chaos of multiplicity and diversity.

With the decline of the Augustinian sin and salvation paradigm in Protestantism, the problem of the unity of Scripture for pastoral and practical theology has been eclipsed by questions of its usefulness. Scripture is primarily seen as a diverse collection of resources for the care of persons and of the world. The value of Scripture is judged by its applicability to the social-scientifically discerned needs for healing and transformation in the lives of persons and communities. Furthermore, the tension between its original contexts and contemporary understandings of human flourishing, amplified by the history of its harmful use, results in frequent challenges to the value of Scripture itself.

The third dynamic interface, connecting praxis (or practice) and Scripture, engages Christian communities in the controversial area of ethics and the Bible. Obviously, this area teems with a host of questions that embrace both the biblical disciplines and the field of Christian ethics. Throughout modernity—and now in postmodernity—Western Christian leaders have struggled with the challenge of connecting the Scriptures to the life issues experienced by members of faith communities.
Rather than surveying again the range of issues commonly discussed in introductory courses in Christian ethics, this study focuses upon the question of the hermeneutical pattern that characterizes the interface between praxis and Scripture. Even a casual observer of the ethical issues that engage North American Christians can easily observe the spectacle of differing Christian groups claiming that the Scriptures clearly support their opposing positions on a controversial issue. Scripture is construed as a unity that supports specific ideological interests.
The pattern that typically underlies most of these claims is what is commonly known as “proof-texting.” Scripture texts are collected to support an already-determined position. Sometimes the Scriptures are used as “warrants” that offer supporting arguments for the view, but most of the time they are cited as “backing” for already-formulated claims. The presuppositions of the interpreter about a particular issue are uncritically identified with the “one right reading” of Scripture concerning the matter at hand. The interpreter claims that the Bible, “properly understood,” clearly supports his or her view, citing and defending as many proof texts as can be amassed.
The use of biblical proof texts in doctrinal controversy has characterized both Christian and rabbinic biblical interpretation from ancient times. Christian theologians used verses of the Bible as dicta probantia—literally, “proving sayings”—that were held to demonstrate the truth of Christian doctrines. The process of proof-texting separates biblical texts from their original contexts and recasts them as data, often used for polemical purposes. Manlio Simonetti analyzes this process in the doctrinal controversies of the early church in the following way:

Precisely because these texts, isolated from their original context, take on a life of their own and are often interpreted in the most diverse ways by different parties in controversy, but always in terms of the new doctrinal and polemical contexts into which they are inserted and which condition their meaning, the hermeneutical procedures which are employed to accommodate them to these new needs entirely abandon the interpretive structures normally used in specifically exegetical settings.

In short, proof-texting, left unchecked, abandons exegesis for eisegesis. The Bible is then read only for the interpreter’s interests and for the individuals who are on the interpreter’s side of an issue.
Perhaps the most dramatic 20th-century theological reaction to this situation of self-interested interpretation can be seen in the rise of liberation theology. The assertion of the hermeneutical priority of the poor and the claim of solidarity with their oppression that characterized Latin American liberation theology sought to free the church and its theology from cultural captivity to the rich and powerful. Ironically, the entanglement of this theology with Marxist theory—reflecting another party of interests—has limited its influence upon Latin American Christianity.39
The hermeneutical pattern of proof-texting helps to account for some of the confusion that characterizes the interface between praxis and Scripture. How can the unity of Scripture be construed in such a way that it does not become reduced to the expression of the interpreter’s subjectivity or the assertion of ideological interests?

Surveying key aspects of the problem of the unity of Scripture from the perspective of these three dynamic interfaces has highlighted major questions for the Christian communities that view Scripture as the primary source of religious authority. Although no work of this scope can claim to deal thoroughly with these continuing issues in the history of Christian interpretation of Scripture, suggestions can be offered that may enable more effective community responses to the problem of the unity of Scripture. Understanding the Christian community’s relation to Scripture as a hermeneutical circle that moves through the three interfaces of Scripture-theology, theology-practice, and praxis-Scripture holds together theology and practice with the community’s use of Scripture. Rather than being somehow discerned externally, the unity of Scripture is integrated with the life and thought of Christian communities.
How might a hermeneutical circle of Christian community respond to some of the major questions that we discovered at the three interfaces? We are exploring various community responses that employ a modified canonical hermeneutic of biblical interpretation and a blended diversity of theological models of ministry.
A Modified Canonical Hermeneutic

In earlier work, I argued that a modified version of the canonical approach to biblical interpretation advocated by Brevard S. Childs could provide a useful way for evangelical Christian communities to connect Bible and theology. Following careful study of the criticisms of Childs’s approach, the suggested modifications included: (1) defining the boundaries of the canon less rigidly to accommodate debates about the Deuterocanonical books, (2) broadening the hermeneutics of tradition in dialog with Hans-Georg Gadamer’s view of interpretive horizons to encompass the whole history of interpretation,41 (3) clarifying Childs’s notion of canonical intentionality by locating it within Ricoeur’s dialectical theory of reading, and (4) incorporating recent sociological and literary approaches to biblical interpretation.43
Although Childs’s canonical approach has not been widely embraced by the guilds of OT and NT scholars, its continuing appeal lies in the hermeneutical space it creates for the theological interpretation of Scripture. This strength is acknowledged even by certain scholars who are quite critical of the canonical approach. For example, in an essay that celebrates the diversity of Scripture “as a virtue,” John Barton characterizes Childs’s approach as “seeking a higher unity in the Bible … in accordance with a hermeneutical imperative that flows from the Church’s recognition of it as Holy Scripture.” Barton then agrees that the canonical approach comes “quite close to how many ‘ordinary’ Christian readers instinctively approach the Bible.”
Barton, however, argues for a sharp distinction between the imperative of “a hermeneutic of the text” and the indicative of a “critical observation about it.” This modern distinction then restricts the canonical approach to “the level of a theological appropriation of the text.” As a consequence, Childs’s claims about the role of canon in the formation of the Bible and in the history of interpretation are discounted.47
Instead of the sharp modern distinction between the indicative and imperative, one could perhaps view these aspects as intertwined. This linking of the indicative and imperative may not only be congenial to hermeneutical philosophy but may be found in the Bible itself (for example, the indicative-imperative tension in Paul’s theology of reconciliation, 2 Cor 5:18–20).
Response at the Scripture-Theology Interface

In our previous discussion of the Scripture-theology interface, we discovered three questions raised by the “one right reading” view of a doctrinally shaped unity of Scripture. The first question concerned the many disagreements among so-called orthodox church fathers—not to mention other early Christian writers—that challenge the notion of consensus. Instead of claiming that a presumed orthodox doctrinal consensus demonstrates the one right reading of Scripture, a canonical approach could claim that the ongoing history of the interpretation of the canon as authoritative Scripture by communities of Christians demonstrates a functional unity. (For example, Christian communities teach one gospel through the authorized diversity of four canonical Gospels.) Scripture is not unified by the many doctrines theologians claim that it teaches. Instead its unity becomes visible through its continuing recognition and use as a unified canon by Christian communities to develop doctrines.
The second question asked if the Bible could move beyond being merely “the church’s book” to challenge the church’s traditions. This question implies that the unity of Scripture is not merely something that the church creates in the establishment of the canon but, instead, is what the church recognizes that God creates in the long and messy historical process of the development and interpretation of the canon. A canonical approach resists the notion of a permanent canon within the canon. Instead, at different moments in the history of the people of God, various parts of the canon are held up to challenge the idolatries and limitations of the traditions of the church. Although these parts of Scripture might formerly have been perceived as being on the margins of Scripture, they move to center stage to address the new issues of later centuries (for example, the book of Esther and the issue of genocide in the 20th century). The canonical approach’s emphasis upon the authority of the whole Bible as one authoritative Scripture helps to account for this ongoing hermeneutical process of interpretation.
The third question wondered whether the unity of Scripture can coexist with a diverse range of interpretations. Is it possible to escape the limitations of Irenaeus’s “one right reading” without falling into the loss of hermeneutical control that accompanies Origen’s “one right method” of allegory? Can Christian communities move beyond univocal interpretation into a “surplus of meaning,” while retaining some hermeneutical control? A modified canonical approach that understands the reading process as incorporating levels of meaning across the long history of interpretation of Scripture while employing the historical meanings of the canonical forms of the text for hermeneutical control might enable an interpretive balance. In other words, the insights of literary, spiritual, and other methods of biblical interpretation would be tested by historical exegesis of the canonical forms of the biblical texts. (For example, the conflicted history of interpretation of apocalyptic books such as Daniel and Revelation might benefit from this sort of a balanced exegesis.) A modified canonical approach offers one way to balance creativity and control in the interpretation of Scripture.
Our study of the Scripture-theology interface identified a dialectic between meaning and method in the Western church’s history of biblical interpretation. For Christian communities that cannot follow the contemporary heirs to Vincent’s deposit view of Christian doctrine or Cassian’s fourfold sense of Scripture, a modified canonical approach offers another possibility. The meaning of Scripture lies in its theological reading by Christian communities as Holy Scripture. This method of reading involves balanced exegesis in the continuing hermeneutical context of the Christian canon. The unity of Scripture at its interface with theology involves holding meaning and method together.
Response at the Theology-Practice Interface

Our previous survey of questions arising at the theology-practice interface identified the major role of the Augustinian sin and salvation paradigm in establishing a theological unity of the Bible that guided pastoral practice. Despite the continued influence of this paradigm among evangelicals and Catholics and strong calls for pastoral theology to return to this “classic” Christian perspective, the field as a whole has not embraced this direction. Instead diverse contextual theologies with praxis-centered hermeneutics that focus upon “lived experience” have come into scholarly prominence.51
As we noted, in pastoral and practical theology this change has resulted in the eclipse of the problem of the unity of Scripture by concerns about the usefulness of Scripture. The unity of the Bible is sometimes restricted to a selective canon that supports a presupposed ideological, political, or ethical agenda. More commonly, however, Scripture is reduced to a collection of resources judged by their usefulness in practical situations of care. Responding to this eclipse of the wholeness of Scripture requires thoughtful evaluation of the theologies employed to warrant ministry.
In Bridging the Gap, I critically analyze five theological models—correlational, contextual, narrative, performance, and regulative—that encompass much of the scholarly work that seeks to connect theology and practice or praxis in North America. After evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each model through ministry case studies, the study recommends that ministers and their congregations employ not a potpourri but a blended diversity of theological models. In this way, the weaknesses of one dominant model of ministry could be supplemented by the strengths of another.
Similarly, critical reflection upon the various ways that Scripture is employed in a blended diversity of models that connect theology and practice or praxis may assist Christian communities in moving away from a biblical hermeneutic of narrow ideology and pragmatic instrumentalism. For example, the thick description of Scripture and experience in narrative models of pastoral care could be supplemented by the critical interrogation of Scripture by the experience of racism in African-American contextual models. Of course, employing this approach will not resolve the questions raised by the theological diversity and religious pluralism that characterize contemporary pastoral theology. Yet highlighting and blending the uses of Scripture in diverse practical theologies represent small, positive steps toward a less fragmented view.
Response at the Praxis-Scripture Interface

Our discussion of the third interface between praxis and Scripture raised the question of understanding the unity of Scripture in ways that avoided the hermeneutical pattern of proof-texting. The practice of proof-texting can reduce the Scripture to a mere expression of the interpreter’s subjectivity or of ideological interests. The hermeneutical circle of Christian community offers a way to move beyond the limitations of proof-texting. This view encourages local communities to expand their interpretive vision both geographically and historically.
In Reading in Communion, Stephen Fowl and Gregory Jones maintain that, “in order to articulate adequately the place of Scripture in Christian ethics, we need to recover the centrality of the friendships and practices of Christian communities.” Their claim is based upon the theological assertion that “communities constituted and reconstituted by the Triune God” are the principal addressees of Scripture.55 This practice of the communal reading of Scripture not only overcomes some of the dangers of individual subjectivity but also may teach communities to read the Bible as a witness that questions the interests and ideologies that shape their lives. Fowl and Jones’s parade example is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who dramatically illustrates reading Scripture “over against ourselves” in community.
In addition to reading in community, the long history of interpretation of Scripture both demonstrates the limitations of the hermeneutical pattern of proof-texting and calls individual Christian communities to a broader vision. Exegesis within the context of the canon is only one example of a number of approaches that emphasize reconnecting with the history of interpretation as a means of theological renewal.
The historic Christian declaration of the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical interpretation calls Christian communities to move away from the limitations of proof-texting exegesis, as they seek to connect the praxis of the Christian life and Scripture. More than lip service needs to be given to traditional Reformed claims such as, “The Spirit opens Scripture for us and opens us for Scripture.” Christian communities finally receive the unity of Scripture as a gift of the Holy Spirit.
This interdisciplinary study has sought to illumine the perennial problem of the unity of Scripture through historical and theological reflection on the hermeneutical circle of Christian community. The circle’s three dynamic interfaces of Scripture-theology, theology-practice (or praxis), and praxis-Scripture give rise to major questions that offer useful perspective on the problem of the unity of Scripture. Using a modified version of canonical hermeneutics and a blended diversity of theological models of ministry, we have briefly explored responses that seek to hold theology and practice together with the unity of Scripture.


Reading for the Subject: A Conversation with Angus Paddison

Angus Paddison. Theological Hermeneutics and 1 Thessalonians. SNTSMS 133. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xvi + 230. ISBN 0-521-84983-7. $80.00.

The Apostle Paul opens his earliest letter by addressing it to “the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Near the end of the letter, he invokes God’s faithfulness, for it is God who will keep the Thessalonians “sound and blameless” at the return of Jesus. The conviction that God has acted in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection to bring about the redemption of humankind and to defeat death pervades the letter, yet the scholarly literature on 1 Thessalonians faces in a different direction, preoccupied with issues of historical context and rhetorical or epistolary genre.
In Theological Hermeneutics and 1 Thessalonians, Angus Paddison joins his voice to the many others (including the editorial board of this new journal) who lament that the prodigious labors of historical criticism yield only a thin theological gruel. To say that his is one voice among many is by no means to diminish Paddison’s efforts but simply to acknowledge the timeliness of his project and the welcome it is likely to receive. What makes Paddison’s work distinctive is that he turns to important predecessors, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, to find both examples of theological interpretation and clues about how to carry it out in the present. And he combines these clues with insights drawn from both patristic and contemporary interpreters to propose his own compelling reading of a single text (1 Thess 4:13–18). At a number of points, I found it difficult to remember that this is a first book, but it was in fact written as a D.Phil. thesis at Durham under the supervision of John Barclay. It is marked by an intellectual maturity and a quiet confidence that one expects to find only in the work of a far more seasoned scholar.

The introduction briefly surveys some recent studies of 1 Thessalonians, observing that they are consumed with the question of origins. As Paddison characterizes it, the operating question behind much biblical scholarship is “What was Thessalonica like when Paul first visited and established a Christian community there and what impact does this information have for understanding 1 and 2 Thessalonians?” (1). By contrast, he proposes to engage 1 Thessalonians in a theological interpretation shaped by two Leitmotivs. The first Leitmotiv, influenced by Karl Barth, is that the letter is the work of an apostle, which means that it is “a witness pointing to a reality calling for ever deeper attention and exploration” (10). The second Leitmotiv, influenced by Dumitru Stăniloae, is that “the revelation of God in Christ is a ceaselessly profound well of meaning, a depth and potential plumbed in the church’s reading of its Scripture” (10).
The study begins with a critique of the historical-critical project. Paddison examines an essay by J. D. G. Dunn on “Historical Text as Historical Text” and K. P. Donfried’s treatment of the theology of the Thessalonian epistles3 and identifies three problems with historical criticism: (1) such work is conducted with a “limited notion of meaning and truth,” (2) it reflects historicism in that it “fixes the language into a restrictively reflective relationship between text and original context,” and (3) the implied historicism of historical criticism distracts its practitioners from the “actual subject matter of the Biblical texts” (37). Paddison proposes that, rather than looking behind the text for its historical situation or reading from the text backward, interpreters should be reading “from the text forward into its history of reading in the church, and forward into a sympathetic reading alongside its subject matter.” Here, of course, he echoes Barth’s Romans, and self-consciously so, but still something distinctive is at work. The subject matter that Paddison is after is an opening out of the text into the life of the church’s interpretation.
In the second part of the book, Paddison turns to two premodern interpreters of 1 Thessalonians, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. Thomas, who deeply informs Paddison’s understanding of biblical interpretation, operates with the understanding that God is the author of Scripture, so that Scripture becomes its own interpreter and, therefore, a statement in one part of Scripture can be clarified by texts from any other part of Scripture. For Thomas, Paddison contends, Scripture is “a vast echo chamber with the capacity to explore, tease out and stretch Paul’s words” (99). Aristotle’s influence on Thomas emerges in his careful analysis of the divisions of the text and the way in which they put forward the text’s argumentation. In treating 1 Thess 4:13–18, Thomas (again influenced by Aristotle) emphasizes Paul’s “insistence on the causality of the resurrection” (96). Taking this causality with utmost seriousness, Thomas reflects on Christ’s instrumentality in the resurrection, so that the resurrection becomes “a dynamic, active power” in the direction of human salvation.
Paddison is somewhat less sympathetic to the exegesis of Calvin. Calvin attends closely to the words of Paul’s text, behind which he too (like Aquinas) discerns the work of God as Scripture’s author. Yet Calvin’s exegesis is restrained. He prefers to explain 1 Thessalonians by reference to other letters of Paul, rather than by drawing on the whole of the canon. And he draws on the Fathers, but often he does so in order to distance himself from their exegetical conclusions. Calvin’s treatment of 1 Thess 4:13–18 attends closely to Paul’s eschatology, developing the notion of an “eschatological faith,” one that shares in the life of the risen Christ even as it anticipates a future culmination of sharing in Christ’s glory. Although Paddison concedes that Calvin rightly identifies Paul’s central concern with eschatology, he detects in Calvin’s insistence on close attention to the words of the texts a diminished hermeneutic that cannot account for the “depth of Scripture’s meaning and referent” and that privileges the individual interpreter over against the church (127). More important, Paddison laments what he takes to be a straight line from Calvin’s exegesis to the preoccupation of historical criticism with the “mind” of the author.
In the final section of the book, Paddison offers his own interpretation of 1 Thess 4:13–18, an interpretation that intends to respect Paul and the whole canon of Scripture and also to be in conversation with the theological tradition of the church. Paddison’s focus combines Thomas’s attention to the causality of resurrection in 4:14 and Calvin’s emphasis on eschatology as the subject matter of the letter. With this starting point, Paddison turns to the text, not to retrieve Paul’s intention—he rightly notes the irony of discussing biblical eschatology as if it were a topic in archaeology—but to understand what it says about “our futures, from our location in the eschatological present that is Christ’s grace experienced as salvific presence” (147).
Central for Paddison is the statement in 4:14, “Jesus died and rose.” Conceding that Paul’s Christology is functional rather than ontological, he nevertheless teases out the implications of this statement in its context for understanding both the relationship between God and Christ and what this relationship means “for us” in Jesus’ death. The “world is now wrapped up in” resurrection’s power (167). The power of the resurrection, in turn, produces radical transformation in the present among believers and overturns death’s capacity to destroy community. This necessarily terse summary cannot do justice to the reading Paddison offers, a reading that is unusually rich and suggestive. It is also unusual in its conversation partners, for Paddison does not hesitate to incorporate John 11 and Matt 13:33 in his unpacking of 1 Thessalonians, and for help he engages Chrysostom and Rahner rather than Malherbe and Richard.

Paddison’s starting point in the theological aridity of much historical criticism is by now familiar territory. And it is territory many of us inhabit regularly. As I read the first chapter of this book, I recalled a number of instances of sharp frustration with the scholarly quest for the history behind the text. Reading many commentaries on Rom 1:3–4 could prompt us to imagine Paul constructing his text with scissors and paste, not in order to give thanks to God but to mollify various factions at Rome. Studies of Acts 28:1–6 that are preoccupied with identifying the precise species of poisonous snake that might have been found on Malta in the 1st century could well provide fodder for a David Lodge novel. I have trudged through many sophisticated arguments about the rhetorical genre of a particular letter, all the while wondering what possible difference the outcome might make.
Frustrations of this sort make me a willing reader of Paddison’s critique, yet at several points his sweeping dismissal of historical criticism needs qualification. Attending primarily to treatments of 1 Thessalonians already distorts the investigation, because 1 Thessalonians is not among the Hauptbriefe and is regularly slighted in discussions of Pauline theology. For a start, compare the references to 1 Thessalonians in Dunn’s Theology of Paul the Apostle with references to Galatians. Or consult the first of the Pauline Theology volumes produced by the SBL’s Pauline Theology Consultation, noting the short Schrift given to 1 Thessalonians. (Of course, for the constructive portion of Paddison’s volume, the choice of 1 Thessalonians is important, because a demonstration of the theological riches of this largely neglected letter underscores his claims about what is possible with a theological hermeneutic.)
Had Paddison begun elsewhere in the Pauline literature, with Galatians or 2 Corinthians perhaps, his assessment of the fruitfulness of historical criticism might have been less one-sided. It is hard to imagine that J. Louis Martyn’s magisterial commentary on Galatians, a commentary that is explicitly concerned with discerning the history behind the letter, would have been found void of theological fruitfulness. The same could be said of Victor Paul Furnish’s commentary on 2 Corinthians, to say nothing of Ford and Young’s treatment.7 These may be exceptional volumes, but at least they suggest the need for some care when painting the whole of “the historical-critical project” with a single brush.
More to the point, at several junctures the work of historical criticism might have enhanced Paddison’s constructive treatment of 1 Thess 4:13–18. As he explores the resurrection’s power to transform the present, some consideration of the Greco-Roman literature of consolation might have helped underscore the location of Paul’s consolation in God’s victory over death rather than in the individual’s cultivation of the virtues. Paul’s assertion that the descending Christ will “snatch” the living to himself contrasts sharply with some ancient notions that death “snatches” human beings out of life, and this contrast might have served Paddison’s astute observations about God’s victory over death. To say that some practitioners of historical criticism are atheological or antitheological does not mean, as it seems to for Paddison, that historical criticism has nothing to bring to theological consideration of the subject matter of the text.

Paddison echoes the work of Brevard Childs when he faults historical criticism for its failure to take seriously the whole of the biblical canon in the interpretation of individual texts. He favors the expansive strategy of Thomas Aquinas, who boldly explains 1 Thessalonians by reference to Acts 1:11, John 5:28, and 1 Kgs 8:12, over against the more sober practices of Calvin, as noted above. As a result, he unapologetically turns to the story of the raising of Lazarus when reflecting on the phrase “for us” in 1 Thess 5:10. And the result, admittedly startling to someone (like me) more attuned to Calvin than to Thomas, is both provocative and revealing. The notion of interpreting one part of the canon by means of other parts of the canon can be enriching, as it is in the instance I have mentioned. And I would greatly favor an interpretation of Rom 1:18–32 that took its cues from Jesus’ warnings about hypocrisy.
In other instances, however, canonical interpretation can also be deeply problematic. What happens when the topic is not the resurrection as God’s defeat of death but the place of the Mosaic law in Christian life? Are we to interpret Matthew’s statements or those of James by importing Paul or vice versa? What drives my concern is not, as Paddison puts it, a historicism that prefers “carving up the canon and allotting specific pieces of it to reconstructed periods of religious history” (140). I do not fear that our reconstructions will be overlooked but that the cranky, minority voices of Scripture will be silenced—that Paul’s profound analysis of the enslaving power of Sin will be tempered by Luke’s more optimistic call for repentance and forgiveness, for example, or that the prophetic warnings about mingling with foreigners will overpower the book of Ruth, with its vivid tribute to a Moabite woman, or that Deuteronomy’s promise will mute Job’s witness that obedience does not always produce blessing.
As I see it, the canon’s diversity is not an unpleasant historical fact that reflects varying religious communities in their varying historical settings; on the contrary, it is crucial to the very theological richness Paddison wants to recover. And I worry that a canonical interpretation of the sort that Paddison favors could easily produce a homogenized biblical theology void of taste or texture.

As Paddison discusses interpretation that employs the whole canon and the theological tradition of the church, he repeatedly contrasts a reading that goes “behind” the text in search of its origins with a reading that goes “into” the text and then “forward” from it “into an irrepressibly ruminative process” (194). A range of images come into play as ways of evoking this movement “forward.” Paddison often speaks of the text as a mystery; he also uses terms such as generative capacity, wealth, depth, amplitude, richness, and liveliness. Repeatedly he invokes the metaphor of the text as an echo chamber.
These evocative images of interpretation are fresh and welcome, and Paddison’s investigation of the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is a strong one. Yet there are places where Paddison’s treatment threatens to morph into an essay on resurrection that has lost its anchor and is adrift from any clear connection to the text itself, such as his discussion on the radical exchange that takes place in Jesus’ death. Here, curiously, the text disappears from view, much in the way that it disappears from view when scholars peer behind the text in search of history. Moreover, in his examination of the theological and especially the eschatological implications of the statement that “Jesus died and rose,” Paddison overlooks other aspects of the subject matter of the text. For example, 1 Thess 4:13–18 has to do with the conduct of the community in its very real present, but neither this conduct nor the community features centrally in Paddison’s discussion.
The desire to read the text forward into the church’s interpretation also presumes a very high understanding of the church and its capabilities. And, from the point of view of at least one Protestant, the understanding of “church” operating here is an optimistic one. Paddison does not take up the problem of corrupt readings within the church’s life, but the question must be asked: What happens when the church’s interpretation requires correction or challenge? We need only invoke the theologies of apartheid and or the Jesus of the KKK to grasp the problem. It is clear that historical criticism offers little or no protection against strategies of this sort, but neither does a naive confidence in the church’s interpretive tradition.

The questions I have raised are emphatically not to be read as a thinly disguised path to rejecting the book’s proposals. They are instead an attempt to honor them by exploring both their possibilities and their problems. There is a great richness here that more than repays reflection. For example, in his treatment of the eschatological promise, Paddison writes that “[t]o believe in the narrative of the One who ‘died’ and then ‘rose’ is to believe that the world is now wrapped up in the ‘power of his resurrection’ …, that the world has no future, no place to return to, other than God” (167). This page is worth the considerable price of the book. As someone who regularly works in contexts where the scenario of 1 Thess 4 is either ignored as an embarrassment or reified as an exact map of the future, I welcome this genuine struggle with the subject matter of the text.
Paddison’s insistence that the subject matter of the text is God will likely evoke some yawns and shrugs. I recall with some anguish a conversation in which my own suggestion that God is the subject matter of the Acts of the Apostles was greeted by a well-regarded colleague with a dismissive remark to the effect that “everyone in the ancient world wrote about God, so saying that Luke does tells us nothing.” By contrast, Paddison sets us on the right path, one that takes with utmost seriousness Paul’s characterization of the Thessalonians as a church located “in God the father and our Lord Jesus Christ.”


Seeking Comment: The Commentary and the Bible as Christian Scripture

Stephen E. Fowl. Philippians The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. Pp. x + 254. ISBN 0-8028-2551-6. $20.00.

Jarsolav Pelikan. Acts Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2005. Pp. 320. ISBN 1-58743-094-0. $29.99.

Marianne Meye Thompson. Colossians and Philemon The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. Pp. x + 287. ISBN 0-8028-2715-2. $20.00.

In the last decade of the last millennium, books and articles on theological hermeneutics proliferated. Theologians and biblical scholars, variously disenchanted with the results of modernism, took up and developed the conversation known as theological hermeneutics. Apart from the occasional chapter in which an author vetted her hermeneutical theory, however, the ultimate testing ground for contemporary theological hermeneutics still awaited: the commentary.
Both the Brazos and the Two Horizons series venture to bring theological reflection to biblical interpretation. Or to be more precise, both attempt to show in practice that biblical interpretation is by nature a theological undertaking. The significance of these commentaries and the series they inaugurate is manifold, because they promise not only to serve as a means for sifting the wheat and chaff of much recently accumulated hermeneutical theory but also to offer the commentary a place at the theological table it has had difficulty attaining in modernism.
As first offerings we have, from Brazos, a commentary on Acts by Jaroslav Pelikan; Two Horizons has released volumes closely together: Philippians by Stephen E. Fowl and Colossians and Philemon by Marriane Meye Thompson. R. R. Reno, general editor of the Brazos commentaries, states that series’s aim succinctly: “This series of biblical commentaries is born out of the conviction that dogma clarifies rather than obscures.” Similarly, the editors of the Two Horizons commentaries do not want the work of the series to remain at the descriptive level of “biblical theology” but state their desire that contributors to the series press on to understand the relationship between biblical interpretation and “constructive theology.”
To this extent, both enterprises are united in taking leave of what is often glossed as “the historical-critical approach”—that is, modernist biblical exegesis. Moving on from this departure, the distinctions begin to present themselves. The Brazos commentators are not all biblical scholars but, rather, theologians who are qualified for the task by their formation in “the Nicene tradition.” Christian doctrine provides the framework for biblical interpretation, so that philological and historical considerations serve the end of reading Scripture in light of the church’s confession of faith rather than dictate the agenda of exegesis.
The Two Horizons’ programmatic statement, comprehensively laid out in the series’ introductory book, Between Two Horizons, orients itself by the question, “What effects should an interest in theology produce in the reading of Scripture?” The problem is one of understanding how biblical interpretation participates in the theological task of the church. There seems to be no predilection against theologians, but the contributors are in the main biblical scholars by training. Nevertheless, Two Horizons seems more inter- or transdisciplinary in the formulation of its project, as suggested by its subtitle, Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology. In what follows, I wish to probe certain features of both the commentaries and the agendas of the series that they represent as a way of gauging the present state of theological hermeneutics.

Pelikan organizes his commentary according to what he calls an “a posteriori organizing principle”: the loci communes approach. His argument is that, were he writing a NT commentary along the lines of C. K. Barrett, Hans Conzelmann, or Luke Timothy Johnson, he would be more focused on philology, that is, “a close explication of the text.” But Pelikan is writing a theological commentary, and therefore the loci communes are fitting, for they allow him to cover “most of the content of Christian theology” through an 84-item agenda (three loci per chapter).
The result is a tour de force of the history of doctrine, as Pelikan draws on his lifetime of scholarship to remark upon a vast panoply of subjects. However, the subjects are often only tangentially related to the action. For instance, although the council in Acts 15 may have historically served, as Pelikan notes, “as a model for decision-making in the church and as a charter both for authority at church councils and for the authority of church councils,” the ensuing discussion does not really enlighten our reading of Acts itself. This is not to say there is total disjunction. Often, Pelikan tries to return to the text, as in this example, where he moves from a list of the seven ecumenical councils back to “the total context of the book of Acts.”9 Even here, however—and this is the recurring problem in Pelikan’s commentary—Acts ends up serving more as a jumping-off point to discuss issues within the history of doctrine instead of the history of doctrine serving consistently to explain Acts.
Frances Young has said the commentary has no coherence but the text itself. In other words, the agenda of a commentary is largely determined by where the text to be commented upon takes it. If this is so, then Pelikan does something other than comment on Acts. His concern for how systematic theology is usually taught is revealing; it is the exposition of Christian doctrine that occupies Pelikan, and though it is here arranged unconventionally for students of systematics, the whole content of systematics is explored through Acts.
Does Pelikan, in distinguishing himself as he does from the Barretts, Conzelmanns, and Johnsons, mean to imply that theology is something other than “a close explication of the text”; and should we expect the book of Acts to accommodate the whole of Christian doctrine as taught in systematic theology? Pelikan’s confession to a bit of arbitrariness in how the loci are aligned with the biblical text will not help many readers become any more sympathetic to his project. Before dismissing him out of hand, however, we should observe that matters are more complex than may first appear. For Pelikan, there is no “theology of Acts” in the descriptive, primarily historical sense indicative of much “biblical theology.” The theology of Acts is the theology of the church and vice versa. Pelikan is clear: “the church really did get it right in its liturgies, creeds, and councils—yes, and even its dogmas.”12 And, it could be added, the church really did get it right in what it identified as its Scripture. For this reason it could be argued that reading Acts should lead, however circuitously, to the defining confessions of the faith.
Moreover, Pelikan does pay attention to the text itself. He makes several helpful comments on ongoing hermeneutical problems within Acts, as the early church tried to reread the Law, Psalms, and Prophets in light of Christ’s death and resurrection. Interestingly, his briefer remarks on the text, which occur between loci, especially when several come in quick succession such as at the beginning of chap. 4, take the reader back to some of the finer points of the Acts, keeping attention homed in on the narrative.
At a time when there is so much interest in premodern interpretation, Pelikan conscientiously takes his exegetical cues from Philip Melanchthon, whose 1521 book entitled Loci communes was intended as a handbook for the study of Scripture and written in connection with his work on Romans. Pelikan is well aware that the loci communes eventually became the content for dogmatics, but it appears, by using the approach here in a commentary, he wishes to recover Melanchthon’s original intention to maintain a bond with Scripture.
Still, in the history of theology, Melanchthon’s commentary could be earmarked as an important point on the way to the current division between biblical studies and systematic theology. Calvin worried that it dealt arbitrarily with topics not directly connected with the texts, while passing over much that deserved exegetical attention. In fact, textual priority is on the whole absent in Pelikan’s commentary, and this may be the strongest argument against whether a biblical book should eventually touch on every element of Christian doctrine. Pelikan raises these problems anew, reinforcing the question of what systematic theology has to do with exegesis, instead of overcoming the barriers as the Brazos Series purports to do.
Is it enough to set the “history of doctrine” side by side with the biblical text? Are doctrine and Scripture parallel tracks one must straddle, holding the two together by a scholarly balancing act? If Pelikan is unable consistently to deliver a commentary on Acts, Marianne Meye Thompson and Stephen Fowl give connoisseurs of the genre something more familiar.

Where Pelikan falters exegetically, Thompson and Fowl fare better, at least at first sight. Both pay consistently closer attention to the texts in view, drawing from a variety of sources—some scholarly, some ancient—to work steadily throughout their respective epistles. Along the way, they provide helpful insight on elements of their texts. Thompson has an excursus on “Principalities and Powers” in Colossians; Fowl gives a wealth of attention to Phil 2:5–11. To this point, they are both far more conventional as commentaries.
However, these are theological commentaries, and so the ways in which they follow convention are not really as interesting as what it is that sets these studies apart. Unfortunately, neither Thompson or Fowl is able to deliver commentaries of a distinctively theological nature.
Thompson initiates her commentary on Colossians and Philemon by setting each epistle within a set of issues that have typified modern biblical studies. For example, Colossians, as Thompson presents it, is usually referred to as part of the Pauline prison or captivity epistles. Though often overshadowed by the other members of this group, Colossians is no less helpful in gaining an understanding of “the development of early Christian theology or for a glimpse of some of the troubles besetting a 1st-century Christian congregation.” There follows a survey of issues that have regularly exercised modern Pauline scholarship, such as the authenticity of Colossians as a Pauline document, the date of its composition, the circumstances of the church at Colosse, and, within this assemblage of problems, the theological contribution of Colossians, conceived in a strictly descriptive manner.
Meanwhile, Fowl introduces his commentary with the kind of self-consciousness indicative of a scholar who has been immersed in theoretical reflection on interpretation, though this should not be surprising. Of the three commentators here considered, Fowl has made the most substantive donation to recent literature on theological hermeneutics. Only Fowl finds it necessary to articulate what he takes a commentary to be and acknowledges that his project involves bridging “some of the gaps which exist between the exegetical work typical of modern commentaries and disciplined theological reflection.”
Fowl gestures toward the ways that modern commentaries often approach Pauline epistles such as Philippians and recognizes the multiplicity of ways that a study of these epistles may proceed. Nevertheless, he argues, modern commentators, which he terms “historical-critical commentaries,” are largely occupied with the same pursuit: original reception of a letter by its ancient audience, reconstructed contextual factors, and semantics. One of the most important differences between contemporary commentators and premodern ones is the way the literal sense of Scripture is understood. Modern commentators see the literal sense primarily historically; theology is the secondary result of exegesis carried out on other grounds. For premoderns, theological matters ordered exegesis. In fact, premoderns thought of theology as a form of exegesis.
Despite this difference in how they present their endeavors, Thompson and Fowl are quite similar in what they produce—namely, commentaries that do little to transcend the systematics/biblical studies dichotomy. For example, the first subsection for Thompson after her commentary on Colossians is “The Theology of Colossians,” where she argues that Colossians’ “christological focus is undoubtedly the distinguishing characteristic of the epistle.” According to Thompson, “christological statements do not stand on their own but serve to articulate convictions about the character, purposes, and work of God in the world.” The particularities of the literal sense of Colossians are left behind in favor of “the categories of traditional systematic theology,” where “every christological statement has a theological implication. Similarly, christological assertions have cosmological and soteriological implications.… Finally, creation and cross together determine the shape of the life of faith, which in turn falls under the headings of spirituality and ethics.”18 With these headings in place, Thompson orders her discussion according to statements distilled from the text, one after another.
Something similar is present in Fowl. With the commentary portion complete, Fowl turns to the “Theological Horizons of Philippians,” where he begins to develop a “theology of friendship.” Interestingly Fowl points out that, after being shaped by “the argument and the language and rhetoric of Philippians” in the previous section of the book, he will now “offer a more synthetic sort of theological reflection and judgment. The theology here is driven more by the desire to unpack a set of theses and issues rather than the text of Philippians.” Why is this move from exegesis to “a more synthetic sort of theological reflection” necessary? Despite avowals to the contrary, it seems Fowl is in fact separating exegesis and theology. Moreover, where do the themes and issues he treats come from? It is not from the literal sense of Philippians, for Fowl is no longer abiding by “the argument and the language and rhetoric” of the letter. With both Thompson and Fowl, then, commentary gives way to systematic discussions. Commenting on the text itself is not enough; something more “synthetic,” as Fowl puts it, is needed.
But if so, what about the commentaries themselves? Do these books distinguish themselves as advances in theological interpretation?

It has become commonplace to specify that, although the Bible may be read any number of ways, something specific is denoted by reading it as Scripture. As David Kelsey puts it, “Part of what it means to call a text or set of texts ‘scripture’ is that its use in certain ways in the common life of the Christian community is essential to establishing and preserving the community’s identity.” Reading the Bible as Scripture also acknowledges its authority for the common life of the church and assumes for it a canonical “wholeness”; in other words, calling the Bible “Scripture” is to make a statement about how it is used. In the life of the church, to read the Bible as Scripture is to read in a way that is theologically interested. This by no means sets aside sociohistorical or textual issues, but it does resituate them within an ecclesial context in the hope of reintegrating doctrine and biblical interpretation. Broadly, this seems to be the working assumption of Brazos and Two Horizons.
Are these books commentaries on the Bible as Christian Scripture? Taking into account the point just made, that reading the Bible as Scripture means to privilege it in shaping the life and faith of the church, we see an implied characteristic to this kind of reading that must now be made explicit: to read the Bible as Scripture is to read as if it addresses us, the church. In this regard, it is interesting that Thompson, Fowl, and Pelikan all keep the text at a distance, viewing it as historical and therefore theological. In none of the three commentators is there something approaching what Karl Barth attributed to Calvin and claimed for himself:

How energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to re-think the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which separate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent! Paul speaks, and the man of the sixteenth century hears. The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter, until a distinction between yesterday and to-day becomes impossible.

This is a feature lacking in modern commentary. It is the ability for the commentator to get inside the argument of the book being examined, to stand now within the flow of the text, adopting its arguments and problems, and now to step back and puzzle over the various dimensions (including the philological, literary, and sociohistorical). Ultimately, it is about reading as if Scripture is addressed to the church that is reading right now. Modern historical consciousness, disinfected of theological prejudice, makes this nearly impossible. The strategy for coping, as Hans Frei demonstrates in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, is to step out of the particularities of the biblical text into concepts or historical background, wherein meaning can be explored. Hermeneutically, this has entailed a discrepancy between what the text meant to the original readers and what it now means in the present. Meaning comes packaged in the conceptual matrix of systematic theology, and a divide is set up between Scripture as a source, and theology. The only way to deal with the historical dimensions of Scripture is to keep it at arm’s length, extracting what is useful systematically, and in the end we have the very dead end that these commentaries wish to transcend.
When abstraction is the point of departure for “theological reflection,” a distance is created between the literal sense of Scripture and theology. This distance is on display in both Two Horizons commentaries. In fact it appears to be built into the very structure of the series. After the exegetical commentary comes the section on “Theological Horizons,” including a subsection on the given book labeled “constructive theology.”
Dispensing with textbook systematic categories is not the recommendation here, but curtailing their use by assigning them a secondary role within theological interpretation is. Systematic theology always runs the risk of becoming its own self-sufficient realm, in which the best that can be done to interact with the text is to proof-text. The need in Two Horizons to move beyond commentary into a constructive theology defined by systematics (even if it attempts to be more “synthetic”) raises the question in what sense these commentaries are themselves theological. Are they theological by virtue of the comments on the scriptural texts or because they are followed by “constructive theology”? If systematic categories are reined in, and the literal sense of the text becomes primary, theology is “done” in the very act of reading Scripture. There is no need to do more if all that is desired is a biblical commentary.
Moreover, adhering to the literal sense and reading as theology open the door for Scripture to address us. If the books being commented upon are Scripture, then their presence in the Bible indicates that, whoever the original addressees of an epistle were, the church over time continued to sense itself addressed by God through them as part of the economy of salvation. The Epistle to the Philippians, therefore, is not written only to the church in Philippi but also to the church that reads it now as Scripture, regardless of where that church is located. The book of Acts is not only about how the 1st-century church got its beginning; it is about how we, the church reading now, got our beginning. In other words, we need not sacrifice one of the central insights of historical criticism, that these books are cultural products, but we need to expand our sense of the culture that produced them beyond their original audiences throughout the 1st- or 2nd-century Mediterranean world to include the church as a culture through time. Or, to make an eschatological claim, the church at any point in history is always the native community of interpretation of its own Scripture. If this is so, then the letters must be allowed to address the reader, not by proxy through systematic concepts, but within the grammar of the faith itself, especially as transmitted in the divine name into which persons are baptized and in the creed by which the church confesses the faith of the apostles. To do so would not be to impose anything on these writings, for their very presence in Scripture assumes that this grammar is commonly shared by all involved in composition and interpretation.25 Otherwise, if a basically secularized, historical distance predominates the conceptual approach to interpretation, the salvific nature of interpretation as a means of grace is rendered impotent.
Another way of stating this is: Will these commentaries preach? Or at least, do they expound on Scripture in a way that is friendly toward proclamation? If theological hermeneutics is to have benefit beyond academe to the church, it not only must deal with questions of interdisciplinarity but also (perhaps even more importantly) must aim at being of service to the pulpit, for it is in proclamation that the salvific address of God through Scripture occurs.

Pelikan attempts a theological commentary that will incorporate the history of doctrine, and he does so conscientiously distancing himself from exegesis. Thompson and Fowl pay closer attention to the text but cannot resist the modernist move that Frei criticizes, of locating meaning in a set of external concepts. In their respective ways, then, these commentaries cannot fully escape the gravitational pull of the modernist dichotomy between biblical studies and systematic theology. The latter two at least attempt, to varying degrees, to negotiate the divide, an interdisciplinary solution that perhaps simply shows that the two academic disciplines are not really compatible. Something else is placed in sharp relief, however—something that underlies the entire conversation of theological hermeneutics.
The problem is that all involved have been initiated into forms of thought and scholarly practice that encourage the very divide that is here sought to be overcome. On this score, there are two statements in particular by Reno that warrant scrutiny. The first is Brazos’s seminal conviction that “dogma clarifies rather than obscures,” and the second is that “theological training in the Nicene tradition prepares one for biblical interpretation, and thus it is to theologians and not biblical scholars that we have turned.”27
How does dogma function hermeneutically in reading Scripture? The church’s Scripture and its confession are genetically related; the latter is not a framework anachronistically laid over the former but is intricately connected to it. Georges Florovsky wrote that tradition is Scripture rightly understood, a view consonant in principle with the aim of the Brazos Series. With Pelikan’s commentary, however, we have, not the kind of intertwined interpretation that Florovsky indicates, but an occasion for an exposition on the history of doctrine, a history written largely in modernity according to the canons of modern historical investigation, not biblical interpretation. Another way of making the point is to ask whether Acts was really necessary for Pelikan to write his book; and of course the answer is no.
At a time when hermeneutics is at the forefront of theology, attention to dogma’s relation to Scripture is understandable. This is not all that is meant by theological interpretation, however. The rule of faith does indeed forge in us a way of perceiving the biblical story, but this does not mean that every reading explicitly connects with an article of faith, for right confession is not the only reason the church reads Scripture. The church also reads for direction on how it lives out its life of witness in the world.
Simply because a given reading of Scripture may not result in a specific connection to an article of faith (much less a systematic category—they are not the same thing) does not mean the church’s confession is not present in the act of reading. It may merely be in the background, influencing one’s reading of Scripture as a presumption that one brings to the text. An equally theological way of reading would be to allow Scripture to change our questions and challenge us, bringing to our attention something other than the agenda we bring to it. If we make theological reading solely a matter of joining dogma and Bible, it will be difficult to avoid the problems identified here.
Reno’s earlier statement, that it is individuals trained in the Nicene tradition who are better prepared to read, also requires attention. Theologians today are not simply inducted into “the Nicene tradition” but into a form of theological practice that would have been foreign to the people with whom “the Nicene tradition” so-called first took shape. “Theology” in this context often means “systematic theology,” set alongside other areas of inquiry with their own integrity as academic disciplines, including biblical studies. Herein one finds discrete methodologies, literatures, and professional societies. The “Nicene tradition” is typically embodied for trained theologians in an academic realm that artificially presents Christian doctrine as a world unto itself, capable of competent navigation through learning the moves of the discipline from professionals and academic journals, not through biblical interpretation.
And, of course, there is the segregation of the professionalized academy from the church, resulting in theologians’ talking mostly to one another, while the church goes elsewhere to learn its “theology.” All three commentators evince a strain here, and this means it will take more than hermeneutical innovation to read the Bible as Scripture in a postcritical age. It will require a thorough change of the culture in which theological interpretation is taught.
Additionally, it is worth pausing over how Two Horizons sets up the hermeneutical problem as one of “Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology.” Theirs is an almost wholly methodological and rationalistic framing and negotiation of the issues. The criticism may at first appear wide of the mark if we consider the following statement by Green: “What must be faced squarely by modernists such as ourselves, many of us weaned on the idolatry of technique, is that neither is the way forward marked by discovering or acquiring the right method, an exegetical technology, a meaning-making machine into which biblical texts can be dumped and the handle cranked so as to produce at the other end a theologically significant reading of Scripture.” What is needed, says Green, is “a conversion of sorts” to a new set of interests and aims, “and thus for formation and/or resocialization in communities” for whom meaning arises out of “the intercultural interplay of discourse within communities of interpretation for whom these biblical texts are invited to speak as Scripture.” In other words, we need a conversion to the way of life embodied in the church.
But to what kinds of interests and aims, to what kinds of practices would one need to be converted in order to accomplish scriptural interpretation? What of the life of prayer, participation in sacrament and mission, or the need for repentance in learning to read theologically? Is the proposed solution, of which these commentaries are to serve as examples, an exit from academic theology and biblical studies? Is the goal of these projects to help the theologian become a “public intellectual,” whose public is (primarily) the church, so that these commentaries should be able to bring the best of current scholarship to bear on contemporary church life? Maybe, but it is not at all clear that such questions have been sorted out in theological hermeneutics, and the confusion surfaces in these commentaries.
So the problem is not just one of integrating established disciplines (if possible), but of integrating how we as theologians and biblical scholars understand and actually carry out our work as part of the life of the church, even when this work is our professional vocation. As said above, however, these are first offerings. If there is one assumption behind the Brazos and Two Horizons series that is undeniable, it is that we cannot forever be charting the course beyond modernism; eventually we must actually travel the path. Reading the Bible as Christian Scripture, and providing tools others might consult to do so as well, is partially an exercise in recovery, but it is also a venture into new territory. We are not there yet, and unfortunately it is debatable with these commentaries whether we are a step closer.
Gaventa, B. R. (2007). Reading for the Subject: A Conversation with Angus Paddison. Review of Theological Hermeneutics and 1 Thessalonians by Angus Paddison. Journal of Theological Interpretation, Volume 1, (1–2), 209–249.


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